Posts Tagged ‘social constructionism’

rafe bartholomew: pacific rims

Pacific Rims, by Rafe Bartholomew, New American Library, New York, 2010


Pacific Rims is an account about the culture of basketball in the Philippines in all its interesting forms. Written by an American, Medill journalism graduate and self-confessed hoops addict Rafe Bartholomew, the book chronicles his exploration of a sport subculture existing within and influenced by the mainstream. From bouncing balls off a jerry-rigged hoop at the side of NAIA Road to the huge professional court at Araneta Coliseum filled to the rafters with raucous fans, Bartholomew steeps himself in the sport wherever he finds it and discovers the soul of a country.

It is a look at an international sport that straddles cultures by inspiring passion and obsession in its fans, and provides insight as well into the psyche of a nation that includes appreciation of basketball among its simple pleasures.


Pacific Rims, shorn of details, is essentially a memoir of three years in one man’s personal story.  It is his personal quest to satisfy his curiosity about the nature and state of the sport of basketball in the Philippines, a country that he had barely heard of before.

In this book he explores his own fascination with basketball, an interest stemming from his childhood when he played games with his father and later with neighborhood playmates.

As a young man, the author spent many hours in pickup games in college and poring over sports and basketball books. Minor references to the Philippines in two of the books he read set him off on a journey to visit the country. To raise funds for the endeavor, he applied for and received a Fulbright grant for one year. He ended up staying for three, stretching the funds he received along with whatever he made along the side.

In the Philippines, he played basketball wherever he could – pickup games with kanto tambays in makeshift courts in the city; ditto in the provinces; and in fully-maintained courts in the barangays in elite residential villages. He played with men wearing expensive trainers and men wearing worn flip-flops. He followed the fortunes of a professional basketball team – the Alaska Aces – and charted their wins and losses, their triumphs and defeats, until the exhilarating denouement of the season.

In the book, he recounts his researches at the Ateneo library and in newspaper and magazine morgues to trace the history of basketball in the country. The sport was introduced at the turn of the last century during the American colonial period, when the Americans taught the sport first to young women as a physical exercise, and later to men. From that time, basketball captured the nation’s heart until it became so deeply embedded in the country’s psyche that it is nearly inextricable – so the author says – from its politics and other social elements.

Along the way he learns more about, and for a time even becomes part of, Philippine popular culture. He achieves minor celebrity when he is chosen to play a minor role in the telenovela “Bakekang”; he also appears live on the variety show “Wowowee” and from time to time on the Philippine Basketball Association coverage, seated with the Alaska team.

The author set out to study a sport. But he found more than that – he discovered the passion of a country, and its soul as manifested in an activity embraced by its people and made a part of popular culture.


Pacific Rims is a “bio-confessional” that look at a country’s culture in general via the sport of basketball in particular through the author/researcher’s immersion in the context. It is a socio-cultural approach to the topic via ethnographic study through participation, conversation and interviews, and research. The participative  immersion takes place via a day-to-day seeking out of basketball wherever he can find it, from street corners to well-appointed courts in elite barangays to professional venues like Araneta Coliseum.


The researcher takes a nomothetic study approach as he seeks to depict basketball and the social life it is embedded in through the lens of his own experience and knowledge of the sport. Although the author makes occasional subjective remarks, comparing Filipino attitudes and prejudices to American, he leaves leeway for cultural differences and keeps to a minimum his value judgments while refraining from making recommendations.

In terms of knowledge-making, he takes an empiricist stance, seeing reality as outside the person and thus available for study and analysis, leading to the formulation of concepts that describe and explain the phenomenon of basketball within the various environments in which the sport takes place.

It is a cross-cultural case study, a field report by an American who, before he set out on this journey, knew practically nothing about the Philippines. Predictably, his frames of reference inform his experiences in the Philippines. Another instance of the cross-cultural influence stems from the fact that basketball itself is an import from the United States, but was eagerly adopted by Filipinos and in its local version became a deeply embedded part of popular culture.

In the context of communication studies, communication in this book as detailed by the author took all the forms from interpersonal to mass, in his effort to glean information about the topic.


The author used participant observation and interpersonal communication through conversation, which took the forms of small talk and in-depth interviews to gather data. His eventual output was this ethnographic study wherein he describes the nature of those being studied in writing. He focused his study on a community, selecting from within it knowledgeable informants such as sportswriters Sev Sarmenta and Bill Velasco; the coaches, players, and support staff of the Alaska Aces; and people whom he met on his travels that in his opinion could provide him with relevant information. For the success of ethnographic studies, up-close interaction is crucial in addition to observation; the author performed the latter thoroughly and conscientiously, resulting in this unique study of an interesting cultural phenomenon.

Concepts and Issues

The concepts that emerged from this study reinforced the theory of social constructionism (Berger and Luckmann, 1966) which considers how social phenomena develop in social contexts. Key to this theory is the idea that people in a society ascribe values to an object or phenomenon which intrinsically does not possess these values.

From a communication viewpoint, it may be said that people within a social group, through their patterns of interaction, develop symbolic meanings which in turn are disseminated, reinforced, and reshaped in further interactions. In this book, for instance, Philippine society has, through the years, conferred cult status upon basketball to such a degree that in the cultural context, its players, coaches, and so on achieve celebrity status that may even propel some of them to the height of the social power structure, as in the case of player-coach Robert Jaworski, who later was elected a senator.

A significant factor that influences a group’s meanings and symbols is relationships. Evident in the narrative is the importance these relationships take within the collective consciousness of the Filipino. For instance, the relationships the author observed between team owner and players, coaches and players, players and fans, and so on, were clearly delineated and nurtured. He marveled at how deep the level of interaction was between the Filipino players and fans, something he felt would be impossible to achieve within the context of American basketball.

Other dominant concepts that arose in the research concerned the following:

  1. Proxemics – Anthropologist Edward T. Hall studied the measurable distances people kept between themselves in their interactions. He observed how some cultures allowed for closer distances (Eastern-Asian cultures  in general) while others (Western-European) kept the distances farther. In the author’s recounting of the differences he observed between the Alaska team’s Filipino players, the Filipino-American players who grew up in the United States, and the lone American import, he noticed how Filipinos are more disposed towards touching each other and are comfortable doing so, whereas Fil-Ams and Americans tend to keep distance from each other and observe a greater degree of private space.
  2. Class differences – in dialectics and phenomenon of power and its structures, the researcher observed how people of all socio-economic backgrounds enjoy basketball, but based on social stratifications, their experiences of the sport were markedly different. Those of lower socio-economic status played on makeshift or barangay courts. The latter may be well-appointed – as the author remarks, some barangay courts are better than New York city public courts – but whether a barangay court is well-appointed or not depends on the political agendas of the barangay and local government officials. Those belonging to the elite of society play on school courts, some of which are so expensive that at one university, the hardwood was imported from a court played upon by NBA players.
  3. Sexual and gender identity – In the unano-bading basketball games the author observed in the provinces, he was at first disgusted by what he perceived as a demeaning and humiliating activity. But upon his interviewing the people concerned, he was surprised to find that in fact the unano and bading players considered themselves performers, were glad of the opportunity to work, and in fact can be seen as themselves having power over their audiences in the reactions they can elicit from spectators through their performances. This realization shook the author’s pre-conceived notions, also another proof that identities and values are constructed by society.
  4. Racial biases – the treatment of black and white people by Filipinos carries distinct negative connotations for dark-skinned people, a preference that refers back to our colonial past.
  5. Celebrity culture in the Philippines – media has such a big effect on Philippine culture that the author was  mistaken many times for a basketball player; he was thus adulated and fawned over to such a degree that would not have been the case in the USA.
  6. Filipino cultural values – Obvious in the narrative were the instances of accommodative behavior which is a value in Philippine culture. This showed in the way the author was, as a white man, treated better than locals in some venues. Norms (which can be defined as “our way of doing things”) that the author observed were the tacit collusions to achieve common goals, as seen in the way PBA teams cheat on the way they take the height measures of imports, and  in how the officiating of the teams went when they played in Boracay to accommodate a powerful local politician. Also noticed was the norm of using humor as a coping mechanism, shown in the way Willy Miller always cracks jokes, and in the attitude of the Fil-ams and imports being more serious than the Filipino team members during practice and actual games.


In this book the author communicates the universality of sport, specifically basketball, as a phenomenon. It is an activity that may be enjoyed across cultures, despite differences in culture; talent does not reside in class, it may come from anyone anywhere, especially with Filipino- style basketball being largely a learn-as-you-go thing. It is a noble message, perhaps one that he did not set out to transmit at first, but in time, in the course of his researches, emerged as a significant and dominant theme.

His objective, whether or not he may be aware of it, is to bridge the gap and forge greater understanding among aficionados of the sport.  The book explores the cultural boundaries of communication, going beyond linguistic bounds  to the heart of culture, and the heart and soul of Filipino basketball.   ***

Photo of Rafe Bartholomew from here.

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communication environment series part 1 – my manila: seng guan temple

This article starts a series of research studies about Philippine communication environments.

I had seen its carved facade before, on a trip with fellow fountain pen collectors to look for pens in the wilds of downtown Manila. A drive-by along that street left me intrigued. I had no idea then that a year later, I would discover the wonder of the temple’s glittering, golden interior.

In this semester’s PhD Communication Environment class at the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, our professor, Dr. Joey Lacson, said that it was best for us to learn about communication in different environments by actually visiting them. He and each of us students had to take the rest of the class to a place the others hadn’t visited before.

For her trip, Nina Villena chose to take us to Seng Guan temple in the heart of Binondo – a serendipitous random happenstance that opened my eyes and mind to a different side of my Manila.

From the outside, the temple looks like a hodgepodge of buildings that have sprouted in haphazard fashion through the years. But look closer to discover the wonderful things that abound inside.

The Communication Environment

Communication is, quite simply, the sharing of meaning. It always occurs within context, and this context is rooted in the environment. A person may use varying communication styles depending where she might be – for instance, she may use more formal and academic language while in class, and shift to a more informal way of speaking when with friends or at home.

The environment also conveys information that a person will organize and interpret to derive meaning. The semiotic model helps explain this process by conceiving data as a set of signs that bring up corresponding concepts in the mind. Signs may then be arranged into codes. Languages are examples of complex codes.

Non-verbal signs, touch (haptics), artifacts, and even space and distance (proxemics) may also be   part of a code that will impart meanings within a system of interrelated message senders and receivers.

A system cannot survive without its environment. An environment is active, and this activity creates further impact on the system. Since humans are always immersed in an environment, this reinforces the truism that it is impossible for people not to engage in communication wherever they may be.

Communication and Culture

Culture is “the complex collection of knowledge, folklore, language, rules, rituals, habits, lifestyles, attitudes, beliefs, and customs that link and give a common identity to a particular group of people at a specific point in time.” These elements that comprise a culture are constructed by society, meaning that negotiation takes place between the members of that society regarding the meanings attached to these elements until agreement is reached.

The relationship between communication and culture is complex and intertwined. Cultural elements, taken as artifacts along with their constructed meanings, form the communication environment. These artifacts may also be considered as “text”, the ‘what’ of communication that is observed and subjected to textual analysis so that the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of communication may be understood.

Consequently, any part of an environment may be studied as an artifact in order to derive and interpret meaning from it – meaning that can help the observer understand the context he is in, and guide his actions and responses within that environment.

Seng  Guan Temple: A Trove of Cross-Cultural Communication

The temple, established in 1936, espouses the Mahayana style of Buddhism, specifically that of the Pure Land sect. Part of the sect’s belief system is that nirvana (cessation of existence), the ultimate goal after countless cycles of life,  is no longer achievable during modern times, but that a way to heaven (the “Pure Land”) may still be achieved by good works and endlessly chanting the name of the Buddha – “Amitabha, Amitabha.”

The Architecture

The facade of the entrance is ornately carved in a style that is distinctly Chinese, exotic to eyes not exposed to the culture. There is no gate. The lack of a barrier at the entrance projects an aura of welcome reaches out to visitors and draws them in. Just within the entrance, a jolly Maitreya Buddha greets worshippers and visitors with a smile.

A stone lion, one of a pair, stands guard in front of the Buddha statue. The carving is deep and ornate, the subject a ‘cute’ mythological creature, inviting you to run your fingers over the runnels and recesses in the stone, and reach for the ball in the lion’s mouth. Again it is an artifact that beckons one to enter, approach, and touch.

Mr. Carlos Tan, who works at the temple, offered to be our tour guide and showed us around. Practically nothing was off limits; one feels a deep sense of acceptance for and tolerance of visitors, something that one does not readily experience in churches of other faiths. Although it is not stated directly, the license to explore comes with a common-sense caveat: the temple is a place of worship, and as such a visitor must conduct himself with proper respect for the place and its purpose.

The halls are wide and expansive, with high ceilings and spaces that entice one to roam around. Having an expanse of space is made possible by the practice of not providing seats for worshippers, only red-upholstered kneelers that are tucked away in small storage rooms on off-days.

The interior of the ground floor, with three Buddha images flanked by fresh and faux flowers and offerings of fruit.

The hall on the second floor is even grander, decorated with carvings depicting scenes from the life of Sakyamuni (Gautama) Buddha. The statues are made of silk mache and are hollow. Everywhere, one sees the glint of gold and the vibrancy of red, colors that signify prosperity and happiness.

Largest and grandest of all is this hall just off the second level. It is airconditioned on days when services are held. The Buddha statues here are large and dominant, matching the scale of the room, meant to inspire awe and reverence.

The Artifacts

Inside the temple are many things that are unfamiliar to non-Buddhists but, taken in context, are obviously ritual items. There was a drum that a saffron-robed monk beat in time to the chanting of other monks and worshippers. There was a red book with gold Chinese characters stamped on its cover (sutras?). There was a stick-like object that rested on the books, something that looked like a fan or a paddle, cymbals through which yellow scarves were knotted, and cinnabar-red squat carved figures beside which were padded sticks. Were the figures struck with the sticks?

I deliberately refrained from asking Mr. Tan, preferring to experience the environment as an observer, and trying to derive meaning from what was familiar, and gauging the extent of the unfamiliar. In this instance, much was an unknown quantity.

There were always offertory tables positioned in front of the images. The tables are heavily carved, some gilded as well. The tables bear offerings of fruit and flowers, because according to Buddhist tenets, “Only vegetarian offerings are allowed,” said Mr. Tan.

The Worshippers

Through observing their stance and actions in context, it can be seen how worshippers convey their sense of faith and participate in the rituals of their religion. Two women knelt in front of the Maitreya Buddha’s image holding incense sticks and waving them while chanting Buddha’s name. At the same time, at the second floor hall, monks held a service for a deceased man. The relatives were all clad in white, their culture’s color of mourning. Since no seats are provided, worshippers either kneel or stand and chant along with the monks.

The chanting was atonal, in a language I was unfamiliar with (Chinese, presumably), and sounded utterly alien to my ears. For that reason I found it fascinating; language is not an insurmountable barrier to understanding, because all that is required is a translation. On that initial exposure, the impression I obtained from the chanting was a sense of immense antiquity, that these words had been sung in this manner for centuries, the ritual kept alive by devotion and strict adherence to tradition.

Off that hall was a room where the dead man’s picture was displayed. Red marks pocked the picture “so he can breathe,” someone explained. On an offertory table were sweetmeats in covered glass dishes and plenty of fruit. Red lamps were lit. Just outside that room, people rolled paper into the boat shape of ancient Chinese currency, paper money for the dead to use in the afterlife.

Paper printed with gold Chinese characters, rolled into the proper shape, symbolize money for use in the afterlife. To show respect for the deceased, sacks upon sacks of these are laboriously prepared.

After the service, the portraits are moved to the ancestor worship hall on the ground floor, to be displayed beside the pictures of deceased persons whose relatives are waiting for a memorial service to be held in their behalf. Offerings of canned fruit are arranged in front of them – fruit cocktail, peaches, lychees. Chinese are practical; fresh fruit, they say, will spoil.

A woman lights joss sticks that she places in a large bronze urn, one of several placed in each of the temple’s many halls. The air in the temple is fogged with the heavy fragrance of incense carrying prayers to Buddha.

Inside the ancestor hall are serried rows of shrines that carried pictures of the deceased. Some are ‘double’ shrines for couples. A picture placed in the shrine frame denotes that the person was deceased; a plain red backing, that the person the shrine is reserved for is still alive. A fee is charged by the temple for the storage of the shrines – the more prominent the position, the higher the fee. It costs around one hundred thousand pesos for a central location for a shrine.

From time to time, people entered the hall, knelt before the shrines, said a prayer or meditated, and lit joss sticks before leaving.

Mr Tan also showed us pairs of red, kidney-shaped wooden blocks used in divination, a practice that dates back to China’s prehistory, when animal entrails were used to predict the future and reveal answers to questions. One throws the blocks up in the air; depending on how they fall, the answer to the devotee’s query is either ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

He often used the Tagalog word misa – as in Catholic Mass – to refer to their services. It may be the word actually used by Filipino Buddhists, or it may have been his way of making concepts easy for non-Buddhists to understand.

Overall, though I could not interpret a great deal of the information I was picking up from my surroundings, I understood enough and connected it with previously-read or gleaned facts and materials that enriched my appreciation of this particular environment.

I came away refreshed in spirit by the aura of peace and tranquility permeating every fragrant corner of the temple, fascinated by its art and history, and above all deeply appreciative of the warm welcome and acceptance extended by Mr. Tan and the others at the temple.

The Seng Guan Temple is along Narra Street, near Jose Abad Santos Street, Manila.

Click on a photo, and click again to see a full-size image.

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