Friday, August 15, 2008

Introduction to Public Management: Theory, Meaning, Significance

by Alan S. Cajes

Theory, Meaning, and Significance

Theory is an explanation of related facts. It is a set of ideas and methods that are used to uncover meaning or significance.

Meaning or significance refers to the pattern of relationships that the mind establishes between or among perceivable objects. In the absence of a pattern of relationships, objects of perception are just out there, devoid of any meaning.

One way of explaining meaning or significance is through the concept of difference or the metaphysical principle of separateness. Take the case of the terms “right” and “wrong”. The human mind understands the meaning of right because of its difference from wrong. Without the idea “wrong,” the mind could not determine what is “right.” Why? Because if there is no idea of what is wrong, then the mind could not tell that something is right. And vice versa[1].

This is the basic concept of the principle of separateness. Everything is “something determinate in itself, existing, and at the same time, not identical with any other being and unity”[2]. Put differently, everything is separate and distinct from other things. Hence, the “concept of separateness is a judgment of ontic differences, that is, in a judgment affirming the pluralism of beings.”[3]

Meaning, therefore, is a way of seeing the differences of things known and establishing their pattern of relatedness or unrelatedness. An illustration of this is the shift in approach as regards the manner of solving the problem of depleting fish stock.

Before the late 80’s, the common way of preventing over fishing was through the activities of the Bantay-Dagat Programs of Philippine local government units. The general perception was that depleting fish supply was due to the bad fishing practices like the use of poison and dynamites.

To solve this problem, the local governments implemented a program policing the costal zones to prevent illegal fishing and to apprehend illegal fishers. To the mind of the local government officials and law enforcers, policing the coastal zone could solve the problem. For them, the idea of solving the same problem by also policing the forests to prevent illegal logging did not make any sense or meaning. In other words, there was no relation then between forest degradation and the depletion of fish supply in coastal areas.

In the late 80s, however, the approach changed. What was once unrelated became interconnected; what was once meaningless became meaningful. This became possible by showing the ecological patterns of relationships between the coastal resources and the upland or forest resources. It was shown, for instance, that forest degradation leads to siltation of rivers and estuarine areas, the hatching ground for fish.

The coastal zone and the upland zone are obviously different ecological systems. That is why one can make a distinction between the latter and the former. But the two zones are related since they form part of the overall natural system. Hence, although the two zones are separate and distinct from each other, the mind can see patterns of their interrelatedness or meaning.

Definition and Function of Theory

The function of a theory is to explain phenomena, which are composed of facts. By establishing a pattern of relationships between and among facts constituting a phenomenon, one can explain the meaning or significance of such patterns of relatedness. In so doing, one can bring out to the open a phenomenon so that it becomes understandable to the human mind. Without explanation, a phenomenon lays hidden from human understanding; with explanation, a phenomenon becomes sensible.

There are explanations that are correct in the same way that there are theories that become discredited over a period of time. A theory becomes discredited or no longer acceptable when a better theory or way of explaining a phenomenon becomes available.
Before the time of Isaac Newton, for instance, it was widely believed that the “moon stayed in the sky because it obeyed heavenly laws that were beyond the reach of earthly laws that forced objects to fall to the ground.[4]” But Newton debunked this explanation when he proposed his gravitation theory. In this theory, gravity is a force. It is its laws that prevent the moon from falling from the sky. This discovery led to the possibility of explaining the motion of the heavenly bodies.

Newton’s gravitation theory became dominant in science from the 17th century up to the time when Albert Einstein proposed his general theory of relativity in 1915. In this theory, Einstein explained gravitation “as the marriage of space-time and matter-energy.” For Einstein, gravity is not a force but “the bending of space-time caused by the presence of matter-energy (the sun).”[5]

A theory then is a kind of story or what postmodernists call a narrative. It tells the story about known facts. Take the case of republicanism, which is a political theory enshrined in the 1987 Philippine Constitution. By treating this theory as a kind of a narrative, the country’s political system can be told and explained.

Republicanism as a Political Narrative

Consent of the governed is the bedrock of the Philippine political system. The framers of the country’s constitution explicitly planted this idea in the fundamental law of the land. Formally adopted in 1987, the Philippine Constitution provides that sovereignty resides in the people and all government authority emanates from them. This provision eloquently makes the Philippines a republican state.
The essence of Philippine republicanism may be expressed in this way: more and more representative democracy, and less and less direct democracy. The first type of democracy means that the people elect from among themselves those who will govern on their behalf. This differs from the second type, which means that the people govern themselves directly. Put differently, representative or mediated democracy means government through agents, while direct democracy means government through the principals of the social contract.

The constitution or the contract among the principals of the state sets the parameters on how democracy operates in the country. Democracy’s representative character takes form through the three co-equal branches of government, namely, the executive department, the legislature, and the judiciary. Each branch is sovereign in its domain. The executive department is sovereign when it implements laws. The legislature is sovereign when it enacts laws. And the judiciary is sovereign when it interprets laws or settles competing legal claims.

Such a differentiated but complementary exercise of sovereignty is not only designed to institute a system of checks and balances. It also aims to speed up the performance of government functions, and to ensure high quality in the delivery of public services through specialization. More importantly, it is a delegated function of the governed – the citizens, who are the elementary particles of sovereignty.

The delegation of such an important function is convenient since the people are preoccupied with the urgent demands of life such as making a living, building a family, among others. Because it is impractical for the people to always govern themselves directly, they choose from among themselves those who will exercise sovereignty on their behalf. The process of choosing the governors happen during elections, which are moments in the political history when the people directly exercise sovereignty by voting their candidates to office.

Direct democracy, however, does not only happen during elections. The constitution also provides for such avenues as initiative, referendum, and recall. Through such means, the people can directly enact laws, make important political decisions, and withdraw the delegated sovereignty from those they have elected.

Election or the process by which the sovereign Filipino people directly exercise sovereignty to delegate it to those they have elected is a political function of qualified citizens of the republic. Its basis is the principle of knowledge, which means that the citizens elect those who represent their will. That is why candidates for election run on the basis of political platforms, which they design to meet the will of the electorates. Democracy as a marketplace of ideas require the candidates to sell political ideas to the electorates, who, in turn, will decide whether such ideas are consistent to their own. When elections do not follow the principle of knowledge, they fail. And the subsequent outcomes of a failed election are theoretically null and void.

Because a republic operates on the proper exercise of sovereignty, procedures serve as a method to determine the validity of the exercise of sovereignty. Procedures are products of reason and experience or theory and practice. They involve a series of steps or activities that are logically or sequentially lined up to produce the desired results. In science, procedures determine the validity and reliability of knowledge. In politics, they define legitimacy.

Take, for instance, the election process. The candidates design their political platforms and then file their certificates of candidacy; the Commission on Elections publicly announce the qualified candidates; the candidates campaign; the voters choose their candidates, write their names on the ballot, and put their ballot in the ballot box; the election canvassers count the valid ballots and based on the rule of majority or plurality declare the winners of the election. Any deviation from the process would render the results of the election invalid or unreliable.

A republic, therefore, operates on the basis of laws or generally accepted political principles that define the procedures for the exercise of sovereignty. Whenever the governed or their agents make arbitrary political decisions, the republic degenerates into anarchy.
A theory, therefore, does not merely explain. As shown above, a theory also helps in systematizing a social organization or, in the case of Philippine republicanism, a system of political administration.

Definition of Theory

Theory refers to “a set of interrelated constructs (concepts), definitions and propositions that presents a systematic view of phenomena by specifying relations among variables, with the purpose of explaining and predicting the phenomena.”[6] In this definition, concepts are the building blocks of a theory.
Concept refers to the term and its meaning or definition. The meaning of a term differs from one theory to another. The term jail, for instance, could mean either a place of rehabilitation or a place for punishment, depending on the theory that a researcher in criminology will use. That is why in research, a definition of terms is important so that readers will be guided accordingly when they read the research work.

In logic, propositions are statements that can either be affirmed or denied. They are composed of concepts and stated in such a way that they convey a message or a train of thought. Greek humanism, for instance, posits that a person (man) is a “rational animal, and that the meaning of human life is found in the exercise of rationality.”[7] The Greek philosopher Socrates explained this concisely: Know thyself.

[1] Other metaphysicians claim that the principle of identity is more basic than the principle of separateness or contradiction. This means that one knows a thing not in relation to its opposite. Thus, “right” is known to be “right” not in relation to “wrong” but per se.
[2] Mieczyslaw Albert Krapiec, Metaphysics An Outline of the History Being (New York, San Francisco, Bern, Frankfurt am Main, Paris and London: Peter Lang, 1991), 133
[3] Ibid.
[4] Michio Kaku and Jennifer Thompson, Beyond Einstein: The Cosmic Quest for the Theory of the Univerise (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 18
[5] Ibid., 28
[6] See Fred N. Kerliner, Foundations of Behavioral Research (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1966), 11. Karl Popper considers theory as a tentative conjecture, something that cannot be proven by empirical evidence but can be refuted. See also Scott Gordon, The History and Philosophy of Social Science (London and New York: Routledge, 1991), 600-601
[7] Kenneth Minogue, Politics, A Avery Short Introduction (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 11

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