Discuss some Problems in Establishing Objectivity in Social Science *
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 consensus 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’...
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