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Objectivity and Subjectivity

In Objectivity and Subjectivity in Social Research, which I wrote with Gayle Letherby and Malcolm Williams (Sage Publications, 2013), we set out an account of objectivity and truth in relation to the necesarilly subjective basis of social knowledge. This posting outlines a summary of the key arguments of the book.

Why are so many sociologists concerned with objectivity and the pursuit of ‘truth’ when our knowledge and understanding of the social world is so self-evidently subjective and partial? The conventional view in all the sciences has been that it is only by securing objective knowledge that we can be guaranteed that it is true and that we can therefore avoid the claims of our critics that we are biased in our viewpoint and are merely parading ideology in the guise of science. This is an important justification of the search for objectivity, but many critics, especially in the social sciences, have argued that it is unrealistic: objectivity is seen as impossible and truth as unattainable. All knowledge, so the criticism goes, is relative to the particular point of view that we take on the world, and our point of view is rooted in our values. As these values differ from one individual or social group to another, so our knowledge must be regarded as a value-bound cultural construction: there are no ‘facts’ and so there can be no truth.

A recognition of the subjectivity of human knowledge does not, however, mean that we must reject objectivity and truth. Whilst we may, indeed, need to abandon any idea of ‘absolute’ or ‘ultimate’ truth, it is nevertheless possible to acquire knowledge that is true to the objects of our knowledge but also true to the standpoints from which we observe those objects. Social science can attain a partial truth that has no objective validity but that is also authentically true to its various observers. Social science rests on a balance of objectivity and subjectivity, each equally indispensable to the other.

The starting point is that of Immanuel Kant, who drew a sharp distinction between the subjectivity of observed ‘phenomena’ that are contained within the minds of human observers and the unobservable ‘noumena’ that make up the world of objects that exist independently of the mind of the observer. There is, he argued, an unbridgeable gulf between the world as it is perceived in human experience and the world as it actually is. A noumenal reality is a condition for any human experience, but the phenomena that we experience are mere subjective constructions of this reality. Human observers, therefore, can never grasp the true nature of the things that they observe.

Kant based his argument on two assumptions about human beings and the human mind. First, he held that what we are able to perceive is dependent on the nature of our perceptual and sensory apparatus. For example, we see objects as we do because our visual apparatus is constructed in such a way as to produce a three-dimensional, colour image in our mind. Animals with differently constructed eyes and visual receptors do, literally, see the world differently: they see a different world, perhaps a two-dimensional, monochrome world. Similar considerations apply to our senses of touch, smell, and hearing, and so there is no way in which we can claim to know the world as it ‘really’ is. That world remains unknown, independent of our senses.

Kant’s second point, however, is that the mind does not passively receive sense impressions. There are innate cognitive ideas of time, space, causation, etc that underpin the organisation of our perceptions and allow us to relate them to general concepts (dog, man, tree, earth, etc) that are pure products of the mind. The conceptual knowledge produced by science, therefore, is doubly relative to the human mind and cannot be judged in terms of its ‘correspondence’ with reality. Human experience is a mental construction and we must abandon, it would seem, any idea of objective truth.
Max Weber and Heinrich Rickert took a similar view and applied it to the historical and social sciences. In doing so, they added an important element to Kant’s position. They argued, first, that in addition to relating sense impressions to innate categories and concepts, the social scientist relates his or her impressions of the social world to values. We necessarily take a value stance towards the social world and so our concepts must be seen as value-relevant, as relative to our values. To this argument they added a further point: that the real social world that exists independently of the social scientist is itself a product of the value-relevant activities of its human participants. We all, in our everyday lives, construct impressions of the others that we encounter and interact with, and these impressions are relative to our sensory apparatus, mental ideas, and cultural values. Thus, the social scientists is engaged in a second-order activity of ‘understanding’ the social world that Weber aimed to grasp through his idea of Verstehen. Where the natural scientist can describe and explain the natural world, the social scientist must interpret and understand it.
Weber, however, did not draw extreme relativist conclusions from this. He argued that, whatever our value position, we are able to follow technical procedures that can guarantee objectivity. We can be clear and precise in our conceptualisation, rigorous in our handling of data, logical in our deductions and inferences, and scrupulous in giving attention to alternative interpretations. That is, objectivity for Weber lies in the methods through which we handle our experiences rather than in our experiences themselves. Objectivity is a purely technical matter that can guarantee the truth of an argument relative to a particular value starting point. Anyone holding the same values who followed the same technical procedures would come to the same conclusion. Thus, there can be a plurality of truths, reflecting a plurality of values, but it is possible to reject some inferences and explanations as false because the methodology used is faulty.
While this might seem to resolve the question of objectivity and to reconcile it with the necessary subjectivity of human experience, some writers have regarded it as overstating its case by ignoring the possibility that the technical criteria themselves may reflect a particular value choice. The roots of this more radical argument are to be found in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, who had also been a major influence on Weber himself.

Nietzsche argued that values must be seen as embedded in historically specific social circumstances and embodied in persons with specific bodily characteristics. He claimed that all knowledge is, therefore, perspective-bound. We see and interpret the world from our particular historical and bodily standpoint of power relations. Those who are located differently will see the world differently. All knowledge is situated knowledge and gives a view of the world from a particular location. For this reason, there is no ‘view from nowhere’ and so there is no objectivity. The idea of truth, for Nietzsche, is a mystification: instead of absolute truth we have, at best, a tentative and partial consensus among those in similar locations. Knowledge is linked to power and what counts as truth is merely the knowledge of the powerful.
One of the earliest positions to express the view that was set out by Nietzsche is to be found in Marxist theories of the dependence of knowledge and consciousness on the class standpoint of the observer. Marx saw class relations, rooted in property and the lack of property, as generating interests that motivate action and constitute the standpoint from which class members construct their views of the world. Class relations define a horizon of possibility that limits the ability of people to see the world in particular ways, and the ideas of the dominant class come to form a dominant ideology. If the subordinate class, instead of viewing the world from its own standpoint and interests can be made to accept this dominant ideology—perhaps through its imposition by schools and the mass media—their ideas can be characterised as a ‘false consciousness’. Falsely conscious workers have come to take the standpoint of the bourgeoisie and so do not see their own position clearly. Criteria of truth and falsity are, therefore, relative to class locations. Georgy Lukács, a Marxist associate of Max Weber, held that there can, therefore, be both a ‘bourgeois’ science and a ‘proletarian’ science. The technical criterion of objectivity on which Weber had placed his hopes on are, according to Lukács, simply bourgeois criteria and provide no basis for achieving truth. The truth of particular forms of consciousness is established only through the practical actions pursued in class struggle. Truth, then, is a product of history.

More recently, a related position has been taken within feminist theory by those who argue that the gendering of social relations constitutes distinctive gendered standpoints on knowledge. Following, in particular, Nietzsche’s emphasis on embodiment, they argue that the particular social position of women, largely confined to domesticity and excluded from many spheres of public activity, provides a distinctive standpoint from which their experiences of the social world are constructed. This is opposed to the standpoint that men take in the construction of knowledge and the power balance between men and women is such that ‘malestream’ views become the dominant form of knowledge and, by virtue of male power, can be imposed as the taken-for-granted ruling ideas.

Similar views have been developed in postcolonial theories, which posit an opposition between the social standpoints of the coloniser and the colonised, and in theories of ethnic division and the racialisation of knowledge. Most radically, writers such as Kimberlé Crenshaw have pulled these positions together in theories of ‘intersectionality’, using this term to refer to the ways in which class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and other social divisions cross-cut in complex systems of oppression and domination. Instead of simple dichotomies of standpoint and knowledge there is a myriad of social locations and a fragmentation of knowledge.

This radical relativism might seem to imply that the whole idea of truth must be abandoned. Perhaps we can no longer claim to judge accounts as true or false but simply as ‘different’. This is the position taken by many postmodern writers, who hold that as all knowledge is socially constructed, there is no reality: there is merely a variety of constructed realities that form a ‘hyperreality’. From this point of view, the social sciences are simply one set of intellectual games among many others and there can be no way of choosing between sociology, poetry, science fiction, and commonsense knowledge except on the basis of purely personal and arbitrary preferences.

A way forward was suggested by Weber’s contemporary Karl Mannheim in his sociology of knowledge. Mannheim recognised the relatedness of knowledge to social position but held that this need not lead to relativism. He argued that we must not privilege any one standpoint but must recognise that all standpoints generate subjectively valued truth: each perspective provides an authentic and so valid construction of reality. Combining these authentic but partial truths into a single account gives a more comprehensive—but not absolute—truth. This is the position that Mannheim called ‘relationism’.

Relationism holds that all socially situated knowledge that is an authentic expression of particular concerns and interests can be regarded as relationally true. Relational truths are partial and limited but are essential elements in a comprehensive synthesised account of the world. Such a synthesis, embodying a variety of truths in a single view, is not the truth, but it has a truth that goes beyond the partial truths that it incorporates.

Mannheim’s position can be understood by thinking of the different views of a room that are taken by those located at different points within it. Each person sees the room from a particular position and so sees it in a particular way. A synthesis of these differing viewpoints gives a more comprehensive, more accurate picture of the room as it really is. Of course, the social world is vastly more complex than a room, but the logic of Mannheim’s argument is the same. A combination of partial but authentic viewpoints of the social world can produce a composite truth, an account with a greater truth value than any of the positions taken separately.

But who is to construct this composite synthesis? As there can be no ‘view from nowhere’, would the synthesis not be an equally partial truth bound to the particular social standpoint of its producers? Mannheim’s answer is both ‘yes’ and ‘no’. The synthesis can be produced, he argued, by a social group that is ‘relatively unattached’ from any particular standpoint. This social group is the intellectuals who are drawn from various social classes, genders, and so on, and whose position within the university gives them a relative freedom from social determination and allows them to take a wider and more comprehensive point of view.

This might appear to be self-serving: Mannheim was, after all, an intellectual. His argument was, however, that there the social conditions of intellectual life must be such that there are certain institutional guarantees that intellectuals will consider all partial truths equally and will maintain their relative detachment and impartiality. These institutional guarantees comprise the values of academic freedom and free, rational discussion in open and unconstrained situations protected by the organisation of the university. These conditions describe what Habermas would later describe as the ‘ideal speech community’, a sphere of discourse free of constraint and power relations in which all can engage on the basis of equality—regardless of class, gender, ethnicity, or other social division—and can consider arguments solely in terns of their intellectual merit.

Mannheim was aware, of course, that such conditions are precarious. He and his teaching assistants ion the Department of Sociology at Frankfurt University had been forced to abandon their posts and leave the country when the Nazi government had imposed tight political controls over the universities that removed all vestiges of academic freedom and excluded particular value positions and ethnic groups from participation in intellectual discussion. He argued, therefore, that there was a need for constant vigilance to protect and maximise academic freedom. Universities must create the conditions in which academics from all social backgrounds have equal opportunities to participate in intellectual discussion and must ensure a relative detachment from commercial and political pressures that would limit this discussion. Only when such conditions exist can the pursuit of objectivity be guaranteed. Where those conditions do not exist we are left with the possibility that certain partial truths will be excluded and that falsehoods may be perpetuated.
The objective pursuit of truth, through the synthesis of partial subjective truths, is the task of social scientists acting under conditions of academic freedom and free discussion. 

Of course, an account with truth value must conform to its object in some way. So, if ‘correspondence’ with reality is rejected, in what does this conformity consist? Mannheim’s argument was that conformity with reality is demonstrated by the ‘practical adequacy’ of knowledge. Indeed, testing for practical adequacy is a principal way in which partial truths are distinguished from falsehoods and the various political truths are balanced against each other and synthesised. Thinking originates in attempts to solve practical problems and a truthful view of the object world is one that provides effective ways of addressing those problems. If a theory ‘works’, it has practical truth value. True knowledge is that which provides us with expectations and leads us to actions that are effective in the practical contexts that are of interest to us. Such knowledge grasps some aspects of the noumenal reality that is, in its totality, unknown and unknowable. This partial approximation to the truth is all that we can hope to achieve: it is what it means for a subjective observer to be objective.

Originally Posted November 16 2017.


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