John T. Sidel
Capital, Coercion, and Crime: Bossism in the Philippines
Stanford, U.S.A. / Stanford University Press / 1999
Patricio N. Abinales
Making Mindanao: Cotabato and Davao in the Formation of the Philippine Nation-State
Quezon City, Philippines / Ateneo de Manila University Press / 2000
Singson has been depicted by the Philippine mass media as the quintessential gangster-politician, warlord, and local boss. Of these terms, the last owes its popularization to a book written by an American scholar, John T. Sidel, whose Capital, Coercion, and Crime: Bossism in the Philippines reintroduced into circulation a word that had long been used by American scholar-officials such as Joseph Ralston Hayden and Filipino journalists such as Nick Joaquin to give a face and name to the wheeling and dealing, the sordid and often lethal braiding of the official and the criminal that, on the face of it, characterizes so much of contemporary Philippine political culture.
Singson’s exposé competed in hogging national newspaper headlines with reports of the Abu Sayyaf’s kidnap-for-ransom activities and the war being waged in Muslim Mindanao between the Estrada government and this radical splinter group of the Moro National Liberation Front. Filipino scholar Patricio N. Abinales’ Making Mindanao: Cotabato and Davao in the Formation of the Philippine Nation-State enjoyed brisk sales among a reading public which sought to make sense of the roots of the drawn-out conflict by looking more closely at the fraught history of the southern region.
The timeliness of Sidel and Abinales’ scholarly interventions in apparently different political arenas does not quite obscure the striking intellectual affinities and resonance between the two books. This is no doubt due to the shared material and intellectual context within which these two scholars initially formulated their arguments. Both books were based on doctoral dissertations for which research and writing were done almost concurrently (from the late 1980s to the mid 1990s) in the Philippines and at Cornell University, USA, under the supervision of prominent Southeast Asianist and scholar of nationalism Benedict Anderson.
Moreover, Sidel and Abinales’ projects are deeply informed by issues and debates within the discipline of American political science, especially theoretical approaches to the study of non-“western” political formations. Indeed, the conditions of their writing illustrate an enduring feature of scholarship on Philippine politics, namely, its mediation to an important extent by American academia, especially in the concepts and frameworks of analysis worked through or challenged either by Filipino and foreign scholars trained in American graduate schools or by Filipino scholars trained in the Philippines by American-trained academics.
Not surprisingly, what insistently haunts Sidel and Abinales’ works, the ghost that their works seek to exorcize, is America itself. Sidel and Abinales’ books attempt to construct a historical as well as critical genealogy of contemporary Philippine politics. Here, the American legacy of state-building—particularly the introduction of suffrage—in colonial Philippines during the early twentieth century assumes signal importance as a defining moment, one that was to establish the conceptual and actual parameters of politics, of what would come to be understood as “the political” in post-independence Philippines.
Sidel’s decision to employ the American term “boss” in his work foregrounds the preponderant influence of US colonialism on Philippine political institutions, processes, and actors. His study of Philippine bosses in the early years of the 20th century draws from the empirically rich scholarship on American “courthouse cliques” and paints 19th- and early 20th-century contemporaneous American politics as the dark double—the doppelgänger—of Philippine electoral democracy. (Unfortunately, Sidel does not doggedly pursue this comparison, preferring instead to use a controversy-inviting extended direct quotation that compares 20th-century Philippines with 18th-century “Old Corruption” England.) Abinales’ study highlights as well the distinctive character of American policies on the administration of Mindanao and the specific role of the American military in what he calls the “construction and metamorphosis of the state” in that region as compared to other provinces in the country. He concentrates on the impact of state formation in delineating communal and social differences between and among Muslim and non-Muslim populations.
Sidel and Abinales’ emphasis on the formative role of the state in determining the nature of local and national politics derives its impetus from the checkered career of “the state” as an analytical tool in American political science departments. Dismissed as a European “myth” in the Cold War and anti-Left 1950s, resurrected in the wake of Vietnam War protest and other oppositional movements and by the expansion of the welfare state in the 1960s and 1970s, the concept of the state in the 1980s was repeatedly challenged by the empirical facts of globalization and post-Fordism with their emphasis on increased transnational capital flows and flexible production; the so-called “decline of the nation-state” in Western Europe and North America; the emergence and growing visibility of regional, sub-national, local, and ethnic communities and nongovernmental organizations; neoliberal rhetoric and policies of “democratization”; and the loss in some nations of the state’s monopoly over violence within their territories.
In addition, an intellectual shift within the social sciences had led to a questioning of political power and its bases. Scholars inspired, for example, by the work of French thinker Michel Foucault criticized theories of the state for their failure to account adequately for the diffusion of power and its decentralized manifestations. Theorists such as Niklas Luhmann argued that political systems could not be considered apart from other “function systems” in a given society. The state was also thought to be too unwieldy and simplistic a concept for examining and explaining the complex and protean relations among individual “actors.”
Notwithstanding the climate of anti-state theory that dominated in the 1980s and 1990s, a series of publications such as Bringing the State Back In (1985), edited by Peter B. Evans, Dietrich Rueschmeyer, and Theda Skocpol, sought to make a strong case for championing a state-centered approach which would treat states as “weighty actors” (in the words of Skocpol, in her influential introduction to the volume) and analyze how “states affected political and social processes through their policies and their patterned relationships with social groups.” However, the effort to argue in favor of the state as a significant “variable” vis-à-vis social forces inevitably embroiled scholars in a vexing debate over the relationship between “state” and “society”—attempts to contend with or overcome this dualism would in large measure serve as the fulcrum of numerous studies which adopted a state-centered perspective.
Debates on political power were beset with their own problems when they were posed specifically in relation to non-“western” states. For countries such as the Philippines which had been subject to colonial rule, postcolonial national agendas were dominated by modernization and development—a global project that presupposed and required the existence of states, preferably strong ones. It was, in fact, on the principal condition of taking the form of the state that nations could enter the “modern” world system. This condition was so basic to obtaining recognition in the international arena as to become commonsensical: where the concept of the state was subjected to criticism in studies of first-world societies, studies of third-world societies have tended, as Joel Migdal has pointed out, to take for granted the existence of states.
Moreover, scholars of non-“western” states have had to contend with the difficult legacy of German sociologist Max Weber’s approach to the study of the state. It must be noted that Weber never undertook a comprehensive analysis of state making. One can glean from his works on non-“western” (and also “premodern” western) states his interest in explaining these state formations in terms of the determining role of cultural systems. The best-known example, of course, is his analysis of China and his argument that Confucianism frustrated the consolidation of capitalism in the country. What is interesting is that while Weber was willing in these cases to grant explanatory power to “culture” in determining state formation, he tended to downplay the role of culture in explaining the rise of the modern state in Europe. For Weber, rationality, the most basic characteristic of the modern state, was patently “non-cultural” in the sense that it is able to separate itself from the influence of the cultural systems which organized earlier European as well as present non-western states. One can, of course, argue that the very fact that states require legitimation at all makes “culture” an inevitable if not crucial component of the very definition and mode of operations of the state. One can also argue, as George Steinmetz (to whom the preceding discussion is indebted) has done, that rationality itself can be considered a specific form of cultural practice. But Weber’s argument concerning rationality remains rooted in the idea that rationality is “non-cultural.”
To be fair to Weber, he does bring in cultural explanations in his analysis of modern states. Perhaps the most important example of this is his notion of charismatic authority. For Weber, charisma represents an alternative way of legitimizing the fact of domination, and he is careful to stress that it may be present even in modern societies. Charisma, however, is radically opposed to economic or instrumentalist rationality. For Weber, it is a revolutionary force that can become the basis for the founding of a new state form. Charisma, which invests individuals with supernatural attributes and originates in the “collective excitement” engendered by extraordinary events, resides in the perceptions of the followers of charismatic leaders. Although Weber argues that charisma is not confined to the early stages of political development, he nonetheless states that it is much more common “the further we go back in history.” Despite its nuances, Weber’s view of charisma is thus informed by his unconscious dualizing impulse to apply different approaches to the study of modern European states on the one hand and non-western and premodern states on the other.
Research on the state since Weber has often reinforced the tendency of scholars to treat western states as rational while seeking to explain non-western states in terms of their immersion in cultural systems. This differential and dichotomous treatment of western and non-western states has been subject to criticism, and charges of Orientalism have been leveled at scholars for treating non-western deviation from alleged “western” norms as rooted essentially in cultural differences. It is therefore not surprising that state-centered approaches of the 1970s and 1980s would explicitly reject cultural analysis, locating cultural determinations of the state in the realm of “society.”
Sidel and Abinales’ choice of strongmen (borrowed from so-called big-men studies in anthropology) as both focus and framework of analysis is revealing, since the idea of political strongmen analytically forges a necessary link between state and society. Moreover, the strongmen phenomenon affords excellent opportunities for scholars to explore the complex relations between the local and the national, between center and periphery, thereby illuminating the web of power relations that define politicking. This explains Sidel’s decision to work on Cavite and Cebu, the first for its proximity to the national capital, the second as an important commercial hub outside Manila. Abinales similarly locates his project in the peripheral provinces of Davao and Cotabato, one a frontier zone, the other a Muslim-dominated province. For Sidel and Abinales, the strongman—typically parvenu rather than scion of a long-entrenched landed family—is part of society, yet does not exist apart from the state. State-formation does not develop separately from the rise of strongmen, but in fact lays the groundwork for the emergence of strongmen and the consolidation of strongman power.
For all the similarities in their basic approaches and concerns, Sidel and Abinales’ books reveal their authors’ divergent efforts to negotiate the uneasy tension between perspectives which see politics and culture as intimately linked and those which attempt to keep politics separate from culture. As an American scholar working on the Philippines, Sidel, in particular, is acutely sensitive to the fact that posing the unity of politics and culture would render him vulnerable to charges of “essentializing” Filipino culture. He singles out for criticism an influential school in Philippine scholarship which explains Philippine politics by employing cultural-social categories such as “patron-client,” “utang na loob” (debt of gratitude), and reciprocal relations: “[T]his volume takes issue with those accounts that speak in terms of clientelism and personalism and paint the political culture, predispositions, and particularistic demands of local populations as essentially causing, legitimating, and bearing responsibility for the failings of democracy at the local level. Case studies suggest that the supply of local strongmen does not necessarily reflect popular demand; people do not, in other words, simply ‘get the government they deserve’.”
Sidel’s focus is on patterns of political domination and capital accumulation. The term “boss” does not simply attest to the American colonial pedigree of the political strongmen, but plays up as well the often unacknowledged “coercive pressures” (in the form of violence and electoral fraud) exerted by bosses on their constituents as they seek a monopoly of both political and economic power in their bailiwicks. Critical of ideas of benevolent, paternalistic relations between “patrons” and their “clients,” and arguing against Marxian ideas of the state as collective capitalist and instrument of an elite oligarchy whose wealth is founded on landholding, Sidel holds that access to state resources through electoral politics and through subordination of the state’s coercive forces at the local level is crucial to explaining the dominance of Philippine politics by bossism (a network of bosses).
The subordination of the state to elected local and national officials took place within the context of “primitive accumulation,” defined in Capital, Coercion, and Crime as a “phase of capitalist development in which a significant section of the population loses direct control over the means of production and direct access to means of subsistence and is reduced to a state of economic insecurity and dependence on scarce wage labor.” Moreover, private property rights were not secure, even as the state itself was unable to achieve monopoly over the means of coercion and extraction, which left the means for violence within private or individual hands. It is this combined state of affairs that supposedly accounts for the Filipino voters’ susceptibility to “clientelistic, coercive, and monetary pressures” by the bosses and makes running for public office such a highly profitable and much sought-after career. Sidel’s account stresses the explanatory efficacy of “structural differences” between Cebu and Cavite based on variations in patterns of land use, employment, capital formation, and socio-economic transformations over time; he cogently documents the dark underside of “development,” as seen in the exploitation and immiseration of the local population.
As a Filipino scholar, on the other hand, Abinales is less queasy about marrying political and cultural analyses. His own project engages the question of culture because it is critical of a different conceptual rubric applied to the study of the so-called “Moro Problem.” Abinales is critical of scholarship on Mindanao that employs a nationalist-versus-collaborationist framework in understanding the history and actions of the Muslims and that views Muslims in anachronistic terms as “Filipino nationalists” engaged in centuries of active resistance against Spanish and American colonizers. He is even more critical of scholarship that attributes the current Muslim conflict to religious and cultural differences between Muslim and Christian populations in the country. Religion is often assumed to play an important role in cementing the Sulus, Maguindanaos, and Maranaos’ awareness of their difference from other non-Muslim peoples, but Abinales argues that it hardly constitutes a “primordial tie” that binds one Muslim ethnolinguistic group ineluctably to another across time and space.
“Moro” identity in fact was nurtured during the American colonial period with the active encouragement of the representatives of the colonial state. “Accommodation” with American colonial authorities allowed datus (chieftains) to retain if not effectively transform their power and standing within an increasingly “national” rather than “maritime Southeast Asian” arena. Education was an important element in the development of Moro identity. Through contact with each other and with “other” Filipinos, datus educated in Philippine public schools and colleges during the American and early post-independence periods grew to be self-conscious of an ethno-religio-political identity that transcended linguistic and geographical boundaries. This “insider-outsider” distinction was further strengthened when, during the years in which Mindanao was viewed and treated as a “frontier” by the government, a big influx of postwar internal migrants and government policies which favored Christian settlers (in logging and development, for example) created profound economic and social gaps between Muslim and Christian communities throughout Mindanao.
Moreover, according to Abinales, the cultural similarities that abound between Muslims and Christians raise doubts about the explanatory power of identity politics in the Philippines. Furthermore, communal identity was used often enough not to separate or assimilate minorities, but to integrate them into the larger Philippine body politic through the co-optation of “brokering” leaders. As in the case of the indigenous peoples, the state had an interest in preserving Muslim cultural difference as part of the process of nation-building and state construction through “electoral democracy.” Integration in many ways took the form of “ethnic juggling”—rather than ethnic cleansing—which functioned to dampen separatist appeals while providing access to the state for “loyal” Muslim allies. Ethnic identity politics could thus be used by elites and separatists alike who historically prized either participation in or separation from the Philippine state.
Following O.W. Wolters’ study, Abinales locates the datu within the context of maritime Southeast Asian polities dominated by “men of prowess” (orang besar). With the imposition of American colonial rule, the datus saw their power circumscribed by the colonial state and their field of influence narrowed and redefined by the boundaries set by the American colonizers. The interdependence of the strongmen and the state is a two-way process entailing both the pressures exerted by strongmen to use the state and its resources to further their personal and political interests and the pressures exerted by state practice to make strongmen conform to basic conventions of governance. Strongmen indeed played a middleman role, negotiating with the state as “traditional” representatives of their Muslim ethnic communities for a share of state allocations of resources and services, on the one hand, and cementing their power and influence in their respective communities as “modern” representatives of the state, on the other hand.
“To the extent that postcolonial states incorporate and thus legitimize traditional authority, the strong man’s very basis of power is bound up with the state…. His power may consist largely of controlling ‘critical resources, such as land, credit and jobs,’ as well as in dictating ‘the rules of behavior for much of the population’ (Migdal 1988, 257). But he is also the state’s representative who convinces, cajoles, and often coerces the communities under him to comply with state directives.” Abinales sees the blurring between the official and the personal as a form of governance itself, rather than a deviation from governance: “Strong men regard their legitimacy as dual one: enhancing an already established place in the community by representing the state. Adding an official designation magnifies the strong man’s power, but it also requires him to fulfill, even if inadequately, certain functions of the state.”
Ironically, it is this relation of mutual accommodation between strongmen and the state that for Abinales accounts for the resilience of the latter:
“Those in power understand that their preeminence hinges on being able to maintain social control as state leaders and as leaders in their respective social networks. The failure of one side will mean the weakening of the other, leading ultimately to the diffusion of all power. Thus, in order to be effective, state actors must be representatives of society and vice versa. This absence of distinction personalizes governance but also ensures a flexibility that makes the state surprisingly resilient.”
“Further, the tenacious character of these states can be seen positively to rely on the survival of strong men. As the representatives of society who stand to lose the most from disorder and instability, strong men accept as intrinsic their responsibility to keep government running. As long as strong men keep up their end of the deal, and as long as leaders of the state accept the fusion of roles as part of the natural order of things at the local level, postcolonial states, though rundown, continue to run.”
Provocative as it may be, this argument is also vulnerable to the criticism of serving as apology or, worse, justification for precisely the kind of governance that currently obtains in the Philippines, a governance that has been roundly and vociferously criticized by Filipinos who have had to live with the bad consequences of the state’s “resilience.”
Whereas Abinales posits a resilient weak state, Sidel argues the opposite, seeing a relatively strong, predatorial state whose subordination in its early stages of development to provincial and national elected officials and whose supreme susceptibility to manipulation by bosses in the present account for its “impressive capacity to penetrate society, regulate social relationships, extract resources and appropriate or use resources in determined ways.” Bosses enjoy discretionary powers over pork-barrel funds and the appointment of Constabulary as well as other officials in the local administration, and in Manila, they can influence the awarding of concessions, contracts, and franchises. Only the inherently chancy, risky business of elections and intervention by national bosses pose constraints on—though can also shore up—the local boss’s power and influence.
The idea of a predatory state that is a creature of predatory bosses who are part of a complex network of bosses can only present a bleak picture of Philippine political reality and an even bleaker picture of the politicians who dominate it. Where Abinales traces the gradual transformation of the datus from charismatic men of prowess with bases in maritime Southeast Asia to elected officials of the nation-state, Sidel’s account argues for the supplanting—if not the qualitative transformation—of precolonial and Spanish forms of authority by American-period strongmen whose access to the state is secured by highly competitive and often violent elections. Like Weber tended to do, Sidel locates the charismatic authority of strongmen squarely in the distant, precolonial past. Charisma as it is used in present-day Philippines functions more for Sidel as a ruse, a form of false consciousness which conveniently masks the bosses’ exploitation of the populace through the “manipulation of scarcity.”
This fundamental difference in perspective is highlighted in Sidel and Abinales’ opposing attitudes toward the issue of violence. Where Sidel makes coercion the hallmark of bossism, Abinales takes accommodation as the key feature of the strongman’s power. While Sidel documents cases of election-related violence, fraud, and manipulation of scarce resources that immiserate the populace, Abinales downplays the role of violence in Muslim politics, noting, for example, that instances of electoral violence were relatively low compared to general, everyday violence in the Muslim provinces. This divergent interpretation can be explained by the specific political economies of the provinces Sidel and Abinales study. For Abinales, the huge increase in the population of Davao during the postwar years made competition for land extremely keen and created tension between indigenous groups and settlers as the relative stability of social relations in frontier-like conditions gave way to class stratification and social unrest. The limits to strongman rule became readily apparent as a generational divide began to separate the Muslim politicos from young Muslim intellectuals radicalized by their educational experiences in Cairo and Manila and by events within the Philippines and in the Muslim world. Moreover, the centralization of the Philippine state under Marcos in the late 1960s and early 1970s helped curtail strongmen’s ability to impose control over their respective provinces.
For Sidel, Cavite’s long historical standing as a hotbed of criminal activity has earned it a reputation for political violence and made it perhaps the exemplary illustration of the concept of bossism. Sidel selects case studies of district-level and municipal Cebu that bear out his argument regarding the coercive underside of strongman politics. But the biggest potential challenge to his idea of bossism is posed by the “dynastic” political family of Cebu, the Osmeñas, who have dominated provincial politics and national politics for many years. The Osmeñas are not prone to use violence, relying instead on technomedia and propaganda to build their reputations and advance their political agendas. Unlike most other bosses discussed in the book, the Osmeñas do not trace their wealth to political office and have not used their political power to acquire monopoly over the “commanding heights” of Cebu’s economy. Given a boss’s emphatically asserted command over coercion and capital accumulation, it becomes very difficult to explain how the Osmeña case fits into the general schema of bossism. Indeed, the Osmeñas are best studied through cultural analysis—brilliantly deployed by Filipino scholar Resil Mojares—of the politics of ideological domination and the construction and delimitation of political reality in the Philippines. As historians such as Reynaldo C. Ileto have incisively argued, the word “pulitika” itself contains an ironic commentary on Cebuano politics, exposing politicking as a combat-sports where dexterity and dissembling far outweigh issues and services.
Sidel treats the Osmeña case as one extreme of bossism, locating it at the furthest end of the spectrum that begins with the Cavite case. To some extent, the term “boss” allows him to do this. The strength of the concept is argued by James Scott (in a formulation owing something to Clifford Geertz), whom Sidel cites in his definition of bossism:
“‘Boss’ is a designation at once vague and richly connotative. Although a boss may often function as a patron, the term itself implies (a) that he is the most powerful man in the arena and (b) that his power rests more on inducements and sanctions at his disposal than on affection or status. As distinct from a patron who may or may not be the supreme local leader and whose leadership rests at least partly on rank and affection, the boss is a secular leader par excellence who depends almost entirely on palpable inducements and threats to move people.”
But the supreme flexibility of the term—which can even be used in such quotidian contexts as “Boss, got a light?”—is also a potential liability for a scholarly book, the theoretical value of which hinges on the explanatory power and generalizability of its concepts. Since the cogency of bossism resides in its highlighting of coercion and capital accumulation—to argue otherwise would make “boss” no more generic than, say, “warlord” or “gangster”—Sidel’s need to account for a wide range of political activities must contend with the unruliness of the empirical material. There is palpable throughout Capital, Coercion, and Crime the tension between its need to qualify bossism by anchoring it in geographically specific case studies and the countervailing need to claim for the concept a wider analytical berth than that afforded by specific case studies. The book’s attempt to apply the term to a wide range of empirical evidence evinces itself on the rhetorical level in the sheer repetitiveness of the main argument. It is as if the book can hang together only by intermittent repetitions of the argument, often in nearly identical phrasing.
A bossism that both subordinates the state and makes it a predatory instrument for furthering bosses’ ambitions ultimately makes for a rather despairing picture of the political future. The Philippines that Sidel paints resembles a Sartrean hell in which Filipinos are trapped in a room with no possibility of exit. History itself assumes the form of nightmarish eternal repetition. Not for nothing does Sidel begin his book with an account of three political killings that took place over a period of a hundred years. The perpetrators of these killings are all uniformly characterized as bosses. The earliest example, Emilio Aguinaldo, the first president of the Philippines, is described as a Cavite boss who engaged in shady land acquisition deals and whose power was curtailed by another boss, Commonwealth president Manuel Quezon.
A strong case can be made for the book’s project of demystifying “national heroes” by exposing their less-than-heroic machinations and civic failings. But in reducing these political characters to one-dimensional predatory bosses, it unwittingly mirrors the simplistic logic typical of politicians’ self-aggrandizing mythmaking that it sets out to criticize. Moreover, however careful Sidel has been to stress at the end of the book the possibility and imperative of social activism aimed at changing the strongman-dominated predatorial state, this argument can only appear weak and unconvincing in the wake of the book’s tendency to reinforce the problematic dichotomy between an active, terrorist state and a passive, terrorized society. Excusing Filipinos from responsibility for bossism—“people do not… ‘get the government they deserve’”—is as untenable as blaming them exclusively. An either/or formulation simply obscures important questions of agency, such as what kinds of activism are thinkable, realizable, and effective.
There are, in fact, responses both between and beyond accommodation and resistance. Abinales’ more nuanced portrayal of the strongmen offers a possible antidote to a dualistic notion of state and society. His strongmen were not particularly law-abiding, yet many never needed compulsion to advance their agenda, and however predatorial, they were sensitive to the need to prove themselves capable of governance and some degree of competence, however minimal. Seen through this prism, the portrait that emerges of Aguinaldo, or of Chavit Singson (whose brief history opens this essay) is less prone to dangerous simplification. Even though Abinales concentrates on the activities of strongmen, his book narrates specific moments in which social forces make themselves seen and heard, disrupting the strongman agenda. The world he chronicles is not populated by a typology of bosses, but is a world whose politicians and people feel and find themselves on the cusp of historical transformation, a vanishing frontier that would turn into a battleground on which the Muslim-Christian conflict would play out, and cultural and religious differences would not just be polarized but politicized, with devastating and all-too-tragic effects.
Caroline S. Hau
Caroline S. Hau is Associate Professor of Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University.
Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Issue 1 (March 2002). Power and Politics
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