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Discuss Some Problems in Establishing Objectivity in Social Sciences Essays

Scientists have heralded ‘objectivity’ as their shibboleth, warranting a perceived superior or privileged position relative to other forms of knowing. George Simmel, (1858 – 1918) for example, saw objectivity as the greatest achievement of Western cultural history. In recent decades however, the ‘magnificent Minotaur’ of objectivity (Gouldner, 1961-62: 1) has been pushed back into its lair, accused of acting as a subterfuge serving the powers that be for too long.
Despite the continued attention that objectivity receives within the social sciences and despite the status it still holds within the physical/natural sciences, its critics would argue that it is no longer the ‘monolithic nor immutable’ (Datson,1992: 597) jewel in the social science crown that it once used to be. Many issues have been raised by these critics in establishing objectivity within the social sciences, some of which the following essay will explore. * Within the prolific body of deliberation on objectivity, the current usage of the word is generally confused and the identity of objectivity compounded of several meanings – metaphysical, methodological and moral – creating problems in itself. In setting out to discuss the problems of establishing objectivity in social sciences, I will attempt to delineate what objectivity actually is and what it means to those who use it.
Without this elucidation, it is possible that the reader may become peripatetically lost in a Labyrinth of mythical, foundationalist, positivist-like, fraudulent ‘chimeras’ (Agassi, 1974:1). Throughout the essay, I attempt to rescue the reader by defining this illusive term, while also offering an insightful tour into its history – starting with the nascence of the usage of the word, through to its demise and then its current status.
After explaining its inescapable relationship with subjectivity, I discuss the problems of establishing objectivity due to the denial of value-free socio-cultural related research and in the introduction of the notion of ‘Paradigms’. I also offer attempts to resolve these objectivity issues, such as with ‘consensual validation’ and the ‘critical tradition’. With objectivity seemingly loosing the epistemological battle, ‘standpoint theory’ represents one of the strongest arguments against it. I conclude with a brief overview on the objectivity debate and provide a general onsensus on objectivity, while showing that the debate is still open, and probably will be for the near and far future. * * The first basic problem objectivity faces is in finding a consensual definition. Popper doesn’t muse over the meaning or history of the term believing that questions about words are not important (cited in Bloor,1974:65) while Datson contends that it is important to know when and how word and thing intersect, ‘for the choice of the word to attach to which thing is never arbitrary’ (1992:601).
She argues that the dominating concept in current usage refers specifically to an ‘aperspectival objectivity’, which is defined as ‘a method of understanding… a view or form of thought is more objective than another if it relies on the specifics of the individual’s makeup and position in the world, or on the character of the particular type of creature he is’ (Nagel, 1989:4-5, cited in Datson, 1992:599). Current usage of the word however is often confused, used as a synonym for empirical (or even more narrowly, factual), for scientific, impartial and for rational.
There is a shifting between statements about the ‘objective truth’ of a scientific claim, across to the ‘objective manner’ of a researcher to the ‘objective procedures’ that guarantee a finding. Originally the term is native to scholastic philosophy where it pertained chiefly to objects of thought, rather than those of the external world (Datson, 1992:600). Descartes first wrote of degrees of ‘objective reality’ although the usage of the word at this time did not yet coincide with our modern conception of objectivity.
Kant then appropriated the word, adopting it as a technical term used in philosophy, as ‘pertaining to external objects in se, but rather to relational categories, (such as time, space and causality) which are the preconditions of experience’ (Ibid:602). It was then Coleridge who in 1817, crystallized the opposition of the objective with the subjective, bringing the term closer to our modern understanding and usage of it. * * Now the sum of all that is merely OBJECTIVE we will henceforth call NATURE, confining the term to its passive and material sense, as comprising all the phenomenon by which its existence is made known to us.
On the other hand, the sum of al that is SUBJECTIVE, we may comprehend in the name SELF or INTELLIGENCE. * In Datson, 1992:602 * * It is through this juxtaposition of the objective and subjective that the meaning of objectivity is commonly framed. This ineluctable relationship is problematic within social thought, particularly in that either term ends up being defined in terms of what it is not and through the misappropriated and/or assumed characteristics they attain through the automatic antipodal relationship bequeathed upon them.
This diametric relationship reflects the division of Sociological thought into polarized oppositions between two separate vocabularies. The objective side prizes terms such as ‘structure’, ‘totality’, ‘determinism’ and ‘macro’, while the subjective grouping includes terms such as ‘agency’, ‘individual’, ‘spontaneity’ and ‘micro’ (Grieffenhagen and Sharrok, 2008:71). As with the objective/subjective dichotomy, these vocabularies are seen as mutually exclusive, with one thinking of social reality according to one or the other set of terms.
Grieffenhagen and Sharrok (2008) tightly conceptualize the difference between subjectivism and objectivism by positing that the difference between the two often boils down to the question, ‘Is reality represented in individuals’ perceptions or is reality something external to them? An objectivist approach taken by Marxisists, functionalists, or critical theorists adopt an external or transcendent viewpoint seemingly excluding actors’ personal or individual experience.
Symbolic interactionists, phenomenologists or ethnomethodologists characterized as subjectivists, are rather seen to focus on personal or individual experience and seemingly overlook or even deny the relevance of macro-structural phenomena to sociological understanding. Objectivism assumes that social reality cannot be reduced to the subjects’ experience, whereas subjectivists such as Layder, would argue; ‘How the social world appears to the individual is the only legitimate topic for the social analyst to study.
This is the only reality; anything else is an artificial construction of sociologists’ (2006:92 cited in Grieffenhagen and Sharrok, 2008:72). For objectivists however, neutral, external, scientific (objective) observers (researchers) are the only ones who have access to (objective) reality whereas the members of society (subjects) are restricted to (subjective) appearances. * * There have been prominent attempts to try to transcend the objective-subjective dualism, criticizing both approaches as being too reductionist.
Bourdieu’s (1977) social practice theory, Giddens’ (1979) structuration theory and Habermas’ (1984, 1987) life-world and system scheme are among those challengers. Such challenges however retain a position nuanced towards objectivism, particularly through their critiques of phenomenology, as seen particularly with Bourdieu. He argues that subjects have a naive conviction that they are free to act however they will but are oblivious to the given sociocultural conditions that form their dispositions to act.
They imagine their social reality as how it really is, mistaking their situated viewpoint for a comprehensive, complete one and are blind to geographically expansive and temporally protracted complexes of socioeconomic relationships. Bourdieu believes that there is an objective social reality beyond the reach of the self-conscious awareness of the individuals (subjects), but that social scientists should not adopt their naive standpoint as their own theoretical one.
He warns that ‘one is entitled to undertake to give an ‘account of accounts’, so long as one does not put forward one’s contribution to the science of prescientific representation of the social world as if it were a science of the social world’ (Bourdieu, 1977:21 cited in Grieffenhagen and Sharrok, 2008:75). Bourdieu, who has been influential in characterizing phenomenology as subjectivist, exaggerates the difference between his own theory and the perceived subjectivity of phenomenology (Throop and Murphy, 2002; Endress, 2005, cited in Ibid:76), continuing to assign credence to the importance to an objectivist approach. * Max Weber, perhaps the most influential social scientist of the twentieth century, inveighed more vehemently against objectivity, boldly setting out to ‘face a future in which the demise of objectivity is not mourned’ (Phillips, 1990:19). He believed that neither the methods of the natural sciences – Naturnwissenschaften – or the ‘sciences of the spirit’ – Geisteswissenschaften – offered an approach that could offer objectivity to a study of social nature.
He believed that the social science has a definite theoretical purpose, object, methods and problems and that their aims and principles could not be included in those of the natural sciences. For example, he argued that it was not the aim of the social sciences to establish a hypothetical-deductive system of nomological laws. Although correlations may have had extraordinary heuristic value, there was little, if any, causal status. Secondly, he argues that a sociocultural phenomenon has very distinctive properties defining them from the subject matter of natural science.
He further posits that there is no sociocultural observation language, which is theoretically neutral, and logically independent of the way we see the phenomena. It is the social researchers erkenntnisinteresse, or ‘theoretical interest’, which made up any collection of social phenomena as a social problem in the first place. * * Instead, his notion of ‘ideal types’ – Methodenstreit – encouraged social scientists to declare their assumptions before embarking upon any study, this leading to a ‘relative objectivity’.
If everyone analyzed something subjectively, an ‘inter-subjectivity’ could exist whereby everyone could know how the reports might be biased, but nobody would be truly objective. He argues, there is ‘no absolutely “objective” scientific analysis of culture…or of “social phenomenon” independent of special and “one-sided viewpoints” (Weber, 1949:535). Individuals cannot escape from the influence of background theories, hypotheses or personal hopes and desires.
Our values influence which problems are selected for social scientific investigation and how general laws are applied in explaining concrete social reality. All knowledge of concrete reality is from a particular point of view. Ernest Nagel (1979) agrees with Weber, also stating that values can enter into the determination of conclusions, the identification of facts and the assessment of evidence. John Ratcliffe (1983) concedes that ‘’facts’ are determined by the theories and methods that generate their collection; indeed, theories and methods create the facts’ (cited in Philips 1990:25). * Not only are individual’s observations and analyses theory and value-laden, inquirers always work within the context of a paradigm (Kuhn, 1962) – a framework that determines which concepts are used and which problems are key or which are trivial. All inquirers are trapped within their own paradigms judging certain things to be true (for them) while inquirers residing within other paradigms will judge them to be false. As one can only make judgments from within their own paradigm, no paradigm is necessarily correct. There is therefore little room for objectivity in the Kuhnian universe of social science.
Even if a researcher does not subscribe to a particular paradigm, it is argued that the inquirer must still be working within some concepts and hypotheses. * * However, it is contended that the choice of framework or paradigm can be made objective and that it is possible for a researcher to achieve objectivity of judgment. Michael Scriven (1972) for example, argues for both quantitative and qualitative objectivity. Quantitative objectivity pertains to the number of other individuals whom have replicated the findings and come to the same conclusions.
The problem here though, is that quantitative objectivity does not really account for much. An illustrative example would be to consider a magician who has fooled a whole crowd. What would be a better term is ‘consensus’, rather than ‘objectivity’. Kerlinger (1973) critically asserts that ‘what so-called objectivity means is that we believe in what we believe and that others share our beliefs as well. This process is called consensual validation’ (214). A consensus about an incorrect or untrustworthy position however is therefore nothing notable. * How can objectivity, in a qualitative sense therefore be better attained if consensus is futile? Gunnar Myrdal (1969), Karl Popper (1972) and Israel Scheffler (1982) argue it is in the acceptance of the critical tradition whereby a view has been opened up to scrutiny, to vigorous examination and to challenge. When a view has been forced to face the demands of reason and of evidence, then we can have some assurance that it is not a mere view reflecting the whim or bias of some individual or group and has respectable warrant.
The presence of a ‘critical tradition’ would, it is argued, safeguard objectivity by social scientists, by sending work to blind peer review, answering to critics, acquainting themselves to methodological and substantive literature and by refuting their own beliefs. * * Different theorists’ conceptualizations of objectivity, such as the ones I have already touched on in this essay, can be placed along a spectrum – a greased pole leading to a usable doctrine of objectivity. Feminists have held onto both ends of the dichotomous understanding of objectivity in two different ways.
At one end there is the strong, or radical social constructionist argument that argues for all forms of knowledge claims, particularly scientific ones. Constructivists believe that no insider’s perspectives are privileged, with all drawings of inside-outside boundaries in knowledge theorized as power moves, rather than moves towards ‘truth’. They maintain that the ideological doctrine of scientific method along with philosophical verbosity about epistemology is a mere subterfuge for knowing the world through effectively practicing the sciences. Practice is synonymous with persuasion, and science with rhetoric.
Efforts are made to convince relevant social actors that ‘one’s manufactured knowledge is a route to a desired form of very objective power’ (Harraway, 1988: 577). In wanting to go beyond showing bias in science, feminists slip towards this radical social constructionist end of the pole but look to create an argument that leaves ‘no cracks for reducing the issues of bias versus objectivity, use versus misuse, science versus pseudo-science (Ibid:578)’. The other seductive end of the pole, Humanistic Marxism, then appealed to their objectivist vision.
In the 1970s, feminist thinkers began to reflect upon how Marxist analysis and insights into the ‘standpoint of the proletariat’ could be transformed to explain how the structural relationship between women and men had consequences on the production of knowledge. It offered a clear way towards achieving their versions of standpoint theory. Converging with this was ‘feminist empiricism’, (Harding, 1993: 51) which continued to favour legitimate meanings of objectivity, remaining skeptical of radical constructivists and semiology.
This arose as the ‘spontaneous consciousness’ of feminist researchers in biology and social sciences were trying to explain the differences between their research processes and those with the standard procedures in their field (Longino, cited in Harding, 1993:51). What they perceived as the problem was that of ‘bad science’. The main argument was that if scientists would follow more rigorously the existing methods and norms of research, sexism and androcentrism would be eliminated from the results of scientific research. Sarah Harding (1993) delineates two forms of feminist empiricists – ‘spontaneous’ and ‘philosophical’.
What has emerged as a result of the tussle between both types of feminist empiricism (Harraway, 1988:580) with radical constructivism and between the ‘successor science projects’ versus ‘postmodern accounts of difference’ (Harding, cited in ibid), is ‘Feminism Objectivity’, or simply, the ‘Situated Knowledges’ of feminist standpoint theorists. * * Many feminists, as well as others in the social liberation movement, believe that despite the seemingly contradiction in terms, it is not only possible to have social situated knowledge, but favourable.
In conventional accounts, socially situated ‘beliefs’ were only counted as ‘opinions’, and in order to achieve the status of knowledge, they had to break free from original ties to local, historical interests, values and agendas – thus providing more objectivity. However, as Harraway asserts, it is possible “to have simultaneously an account of radical historical contingency for all knowledge claims and knowing subjects, a critical practice for recognizing our own ‘semiotic technologies’ for making meaning, and a no-nonsense commitment to faithful accounts of a ‘real’ world’ (1988: 579). * Adhering to the ‘spontaneous feminist theorists’ idea that insufficient care and rigour in existing methods is the cause of sexist and androcentric results of research, standpoint theorists believe this is only part of the problem. The problem lies with the conventional conception of objectivity and that it is not rigorous or objectifying enough. Harding states:
* The methods and norms are too weak to permit researchers systematically to identify and eliminate from the results of research those social values, interests and agendas that are shared by the entire scientific community…Objectivity has not been “operationalized” in such a way that scientific method can detect sexist and androcentric assumptions that are the ‘”dominant beliefs of an age”. * Harding, 1993:52 * * Standpoint theorists try to address this problem by producing stronger standards for “good method” that “maximize objectivity” (Ibid). * With regards to history, socially situated grounds and subjects of standpoint epistemologies generate stronger standards for objectivity than ‘do those that turn away from providing systematic methods for locating knowledge in history’ (Harding, 1993:50). Feminist empiricists argued that the movements of social liberation, such as the women’s movement, function to ‘make it possible for people to see the world in an enlarged perspective because they remove the covers and blinders that obscure knowledge and observation’ (Millman and Kanter, 1975 cited in Ibid:53).
Standpoint theorists take this sentiment further by stating that researchers can do more than merely wait around until social movements happen and should incorporate into their principles of good practice to use history as a resource by socially situating knowledge projects in the scientifically and epistemological most favorable historical accounts. History can therefore become the systematic provider of scientific and epistemological resources. * While we traced earlier the history of the feminist standpoint theory as emerging out of empiricist feminists and Marxist theories of how class society operates, it is also traceable to Hegel’s reflections on what is known as the ‘master/slave relationship’; from the standpoint of the slave’s life versus that of the master’s. Although standpoint arguments are prolific among feminist’s writings, they also appear in the scientific projects of all the news social movements.
In societies where objectivity and science are highly valued by dominant groups, the voices of the marginalized are rarely heard. The researchers, often from their dominant positions, account for the lives of the marginalized without considering their own social situation, failing to interrogate systematically their advantaged social situation which in turn, leaves them epistemologically and scientifically disadvantaged. Even those with good intentions, may end up legitimating exploitative ‘practical politics’.
Standpoint theorists argue that it should be those at the bottom of the social hierarchies that offer starting points for research and scholarship, not only revealing human relations between each other but also the problems to be explained or research agendas. It is these experiences that should be a source of objectivity-maximizing, setting out a ‘logic of discovery’ to produce knowledge that can be for the marginalized people. Thus, standpoint theory challenges some of the most fundamental assumptions of the scientific worldview and the Western thought that takes science as its model of how to produce knowledge. * Many currents through standpoint theorists argue for the vantage points of the subjugated, believing that the vision is better from below. The standpoints of the subjugated are preferred because they are ‘least likely to allow denial of the critical and interpretive core of all knowledge’ and are ‘knowledgeable of modes of denial through repression, forgetting, and disappearing acts – ways of being nowhere while claiming to see comprehensively’ (Harraway, 1988:584). They seem to promise more sufficient, sustained, transforming and objective accounts of the world.
Therefore, Harraway, along with many other feminists, argues for a doctrine of objectivity that privileges ‘contestation, deconstruction, passionate construction, webbed connections, and hope for transformation of systems of knowledge and ways of seeing’ (Ibid:585). Although establishing the capacity to see from the peripheries and the depths are held at a premium, the danger of romanticizing the vision of the less powerful should not be misjudged. Judith Buber Agassi in her paper, Objectivity in the Social Sciences (1974), highlights this concern at a time when feminism and other openly-ideological researcher was nascent. * Agassi is one of a many who felt threatened by liberation research movements in the social sciences. She represents those who were particularly ‘disturbed’ about a perceived ‘trend’ to despair of the ‘basic precondition of objective social science, namely that of the unity of mankind – both intellectually and moral’ (Agassi, 1974:1). Agassi views ‘attacks’ on objectivity as nothing more than radical social scientists getting caught up in mere fashions, accusing them of lacking the basic requirement of critical awareness void of attempting any level of objectivity.
Her fear was based at a time when the sociologists of the women’s liberation and black militant movement, and movements against the Vietnam War were burgeoning. These new radical movements largely based in the campuses of major universities affected the departments of sociology the most, radicalizing the discipline. The interrogation of objectivity was seen as a ‘dangerous attack’ by those with an extremist viewpoint who were ‘gathering immediate ammunition for the battle’, with no time for proper analyses.
They apparently shared the opinion that the only way to know social reality was by ‘active participation in the struggle’ (Agassi, 1974). * * Today, social scientists are increasingly taking up the struggle along side their subjects, particularly those working within value-based research programs. They advocate the idea that ‘since interest-free knowledge is logically impossible, we should not feel free to substitute explicit interests for implicit ones’ (Reinharz, 1985:17 cited in Lather, 1986:63). As Mary Hesse (1990 cited in Ibid) states, * ‘The attempt to produce value-neutral social science is increasingly being abandoned as at best unrealizable, and at worst self-deceptive, and is being replaced by social sciences based [rather], on explicit ideologies’ *
* Lather warns that recognizing personal bias and accepting open ideological research is not sufficient to foster a body of empirical work suitable for theory-building, and that a more systematic approach to triangulation and reflexivity, face and catalytic validity needs to be adopted. Otherwise, the ‘spectre of relativism’ may prevent the constructive reshaping of the positivist paradigm. * In conclusion, different theorists have created challenges against the reign of objectivity, moving social science away from its positivist, foundationalist, nomological tradition towards a postmodern milieu, with researchers commonly advocating for a more interpretive and critical questioning of the epistemological status of ‘facts’ and ‘realities’. According to their critique of objectivity, facts and realities are socially constructed and politically negotiated and are therefore subjective rather than objective.
As a consequence, it has been argued that there is ‘no objective fact about the world, no objective knowledge of the world and no objective science’ (O’Meara, 2001:32). Rather, there are said to be different social groups from different standpoints, knowable by different methods. Facts and realities can be judged as a matter of social consensus or inter-subjective agreement among those who share a similar ‘paradigm’. As a result, the subjectivity of knowable phenomena is asserted over the possibility of objective knowledge claims.
The concept of objectivity has been taken to be a tool of hegemonic discourse, thus ‘science is just politics by other means’ (O’Meara, 2001:32). * * Alas! Is objectivity finally dead? O’Meara thinks not, and further critiques the critiques, arguing that it mirrors the scientism it rejects. His basic argument is that the ‘attackers’ of objectivity, as outlined in the above essay, err in making a category mistake founded on empirically incorrect, Humean account of causation, resulting in erroneously taking objectivity to be a matter of inter-subjective agreement.
* …the critique of objectivity errs in ascribing truisms about what are loosely called ‘social facts’ concerning ‘social reality’ …to the very different category of physical facts concerning physical reality…while social and cultural scientism makes the mirror-image mistake of ascribing truisms about physical reality to ‘social facts’ and ‘social reality’ * O’Meara 2001:29 * Whether objectivity is taken to mean something like ‘direct knowledge of reality obtained by observation without the intervention of any cognitive operations, which necessarily introduce bias’ (Reyna, 1994:576 cited in O’Meara, 2001:33), or if it is taken to be a matter of degree, which increases as mutual criticism helps researchers uncover and remove bias, it seems that we lack certain knowledge of the world because of the psychological or cognitive processes by which we come to know the world.
Even through science’s elaborate checks and balances, it is understood that either a) there is no objectivity in the sense that no claim is entirely free of ‘bias’, thus not entirely certain or b) objectivity must be understood in a weak sense as a matter of the degree to which a claim is thought to be bias. As Searle concludes, ‘Famously… the contrast between epistemic objectivity and epistemic subjectivity is a matter of degree’ (1995a:9 cited in O’Meara, 2001:35) and that ‘objectivity is just a kind of subjectivity’. * Discussions around the problem of establishing objectivity in Social science remains in force; the pendulum of objectivity swinging in vacillating circularity, never resting for long enough that even its own existence evades debate. It seems more constructive not to imagine objectivity and subjectivity being enemies fighting an epistemological battle; but rather that they are uncomfortable bedfellows, yet to quite establish their relationship with each other. Once this has been established, if it ever is, then objectivity will perhaps reign popular again. Word count: 4,193 *

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