Objectivity and Subjectivity in Social Sciences Research

Research is an integral part of not only academia but society as well because academic research is what allows individuals to understand the world in a factual sense. Data provides us with facts and these facts structure the world we live in. Society and every aspect of it has been studied for decades now and researchers have come up with an array of new methods to accomplish this. As society progressed civilisation moved from a society centred around religious governance to one rooted around science. Sociologists wanted to study human behaviour the same way in which natural sciences were studied-  thus the emergence of positivism. This is where objectivity and subjectivity become important.

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According to science, one must conduct research ‘objectively’ to avoid bias and arrive at the truth. However, as humans are inherently subjective creatures it is not possible to study them in the same way sciences are studied. What makes someone human is their ability to think, feel, act and react. Oftentimes the discourse surrounding this topic boils down to this question: Is reality represented in individuals’ perceptions or is reality something external to them? The topic of subjectivity and objectivity in social sciences is a grey area that must be discussed.

Objectivity and Subjectivity

Objectivity     

Approaches in Sociology

Sociological approaches that are objective in nature adopt a viewpoint that is external or transcendent to individual experience. Examples include Marxism, Functionalism, Critical Theory, and Structuralism. The actor’s motives, choices, and reasoning are not of importance. In a way, it assumes that social reality does not stem from subjective experiences, rather the macro structures that bind society actively constructs reality (Greiffenhagen & Sharrock, 2008). Durkheim through his writings establish two things. In an attribute to scientific discourse, objectivity must be understood in an epistemological sense. He argues that an opposition between methodological analysis (analysis of subjective motives as explanatory factors) and the objective observation, comparison and explanation of social facts as ‘things’ must be established (Paoletti, 2004). The second question he raises, which takes an ontological approach, is whether representations actually represent something and if they do, what is it? Through his works he tackles these questions and comes to the conclusion that social reality is independent of our representations.

Ontology is about things where as epistemology is about knowledge. Ontologically, objectivity is independent of the mind whereas subjectivity is dependent on it. In the realm of Epistemology, however, objectivity is dependent on the view of rational thinkers. (Powell et al., 2014) If the knowledge or thing in question is true for all rational thinkers, then it has attained objectivity. Something becomes subjective when there is disagreement on the conclusion despite being presented with the same evidence. Durkheim and Weber believed in producing knowledge that is epistemologically objective however their opinions on how important ontologically subjective and objective things are to sociological explanation differed (Powell et al., 2014).

According to Durkheim social facts exist objectively, they are in a sphere that is independent of the actors who carry them out. He believes that it is not important to study the meanings behind those actions, rather social facts must be entirely based upon objective properties. This is reflected in his work revolving around suicide- though the act initself might seem to be highly subjective he believed that was not the case. As he pointed out in his book, there are four different types of suicide and he mapped out how this highly individualistic feature is actually a structural phenomenon. Weber on the other hand, disagreed with both his claims. For him, social reality is actively constructed because of the individual and their actions (Powell et al., 2014). The only thing that exists in society are the individuals and their subsequent actions, hence, in order to study social facts and reality the meanings behind these actions must be studied.

Approaches in Psychology

During the early years of psychology, psychologists used a positivist approach to mirror the objective nature of hard sciences, especially during the 19th century, positivism was welcomed with open arms. Laboratory experiments were particularly famous around this time and were the favoured method owing to their success and reliability. This further helped dawn in the positivist framework. However, as time progressed, researchers raised doubts regarding the limitations of objectivity in scientific inquiry and split into four camps: tempered positivist view, relative positivist view, constructivist view, and the subjectivist view.

Those who followed the tempered positivist view regarded objectivity as an ideal that is preferred but never attainable. It can never truly be attained because of the unintentional or intentional bias of the researcher. They try to bridge the gap by ensuring that these biases are eliminated. The relative positivists on the other hand believe that the matter studied in social sciences is inherently value-laden, hence this subjectivity cannot be escaped. The solution to minimising subjectivity is to put the work under rigorous review and constantly re-evaluate the work being produced. The latter two camps will be introduced when discussing subjectivity.

Research Methods: Objectivity

Researchers who strive for objectivity in their work and field incorporate methods that are objective, unbiased and the closest to scientific truth. As mentioned earlier, the method in which the subject matter is being studied can entirely change the trajectory of the end result. Hence, it is crucial to choose the most appropriate research method and design. Objective research claims to illustrate reality that is ‘true’ and ‘correct’, it exists independently of those that are being studied, similar to it theoretical counterparts. Therefore, the methods and apparatus used in objective research is modelled after those in the hard sciences. Researchers use experiments, surveys with closed-ended questions and observations in strict controlled environments. These methods allow researchers to collect numerical data which can then be interpreted and analysed in an objective, unbiased manner as it does not require the researchers’ input. Experiments work under a controlled environment which is free of the researchers subjective feelings and interpretations, the situation can be replicated and hence provide reliability and validity to the work.

Subjectivity

Approaches in Sociology

Subjectivist approaches on the other hand place their emphasis on the personal- they value individual experiences and aim to uncover the meaning behind these actions. The macro-structures are not of much relevance. Sociological approaches which follow this line of thought include symbolic interactionism, phenomenology and ethnomethodology (Greiffenhagen & Sharrock, 2008). Symbolic interactionism focuses on the hidden or inherent meanings ascribed to things and is interested in how communication and interaction shapes the social world. Phenomenology is built around SI and studies consciousness as a structure experienced in the first person. Ethnomethodology studies how social order is produced as a result of social interaction. All these approaches understand society from a micro perspective.

According to Schutz, social sciences are constructs of the second degree, meaning, they are constructs of constructs made by individuals (actors). Therefore, in order to understand this, the social scientist must observe and explain this in accordance with the rules of his science (Greiffenhagen & Sharrock, 2008). In this case that translates to observing and understanding the root of social interaction and action that constructs meaning in everyday life.  Bittner was hesitant in terming these approaches as subjectivist as it would get lost within the discourse around objectivity and subjectivity. He argued that experience cannot entirely be construed as ‘subjective’ as it includes references to an objective social world. To characterise phenomenology (inclusive of the other approaches mentioned above) as subjective opens a dangerous territory. While it is inherently subjective, it is not void of objectivity. Bittner urges to draw attention to the fact that the factual reality of the world actually has an effect on the subject (Greiffenhagen & Sharrock, 2008).

Approaches in Psychology

The first two camps were discussed under objectivity the latter two- the constructivist view and the subjectivist view- fall under subjectivity. Constructivists raise two points in their argument, firstly, they do not believe it is entirely possible nor desirable to have disinterested objectivity in social sciences. Subjectivity is inherent because they conclusions social scientists draw will be reflective of their theoretical beliefs and knowledge. Researchers will only conduct a research if they believe the topic has a reason to be studied- this reasoning exists and is influenced by their knowledge, interests and beliefs. The second argument constructivists put forward is that by unflicnhingly heeding to the positivist stance, one is hindering the discipline of psychology. Subjectivists, on the other hand, believe that the fundamental questions psychologists tackle cannot be addressed using traditionalist methods, they call for an approach that embraces scientific psychology rooted in subjectivity rather than rejecting it. Cognitive psychology and Humanistic psychology are examples of approaches that follow the subjective approach

Research Methods: Subjectivity

Experiments have always been a preferred method to study human behavior in both disciplines. However, as approaches and theories developed researchers now use a range of methods to obtain qualitative data that is rich. Interpretivism integrates human interest into the study and aim to uncover the reasoning behind human behavior and actions. While experiments allow for a description of unbiased data, it may not always reflect what is happening in the real world. A controlled environment is not the same as everyday life and what researchers are interested in studying is human behaviour in real life. Field experiments, observations and qualitative interviews are examples of research methods that allow for a subjective interpretation of behaviour. Qualitative interviews, for example, provides subjects the platform to express their thought process and with precautions bias that could confound data can be avoided. These tools are greatly useful when wanting to describe lived experiences.

Conclusion

While both views raise valid points it must be noted that they have both been crticised to be reductionist in their thinking. It would prove to be useful if researchers found a way to incorporate the important aspects of both subjectivity and objectivity to their approach as they are equally important.

References

Greiffenhagen, C., & Sharrock, W. (2008). Where do the limits of experience lie? Abandoning the dualism of objectivity and subjectivity. History of the Human Sciences, 21(3), 70–93. https://doi.org/10.1177/0952695108093954

Paoletti, G. (2004). Durkheim and the Problem of Objectivity: A Reading of Les formes elementaires de la vie religieuse. Revue Française De Sociologie, 45, 3. https://doi.org/10.2307/3323146

Powell, C., Says:, S., says:, C. P., says:, B. A. B. A. lukman, says:, J., says:, C., says:, A. E., Says:, H., says:, A., & says:, H. H. (2014, March 10). Objectivity and Subjectivity in Classical Sociology. The Practical Theorist. https://practicaltheorist.wordpress.com/2014/03/10/objectivity-and-subjectivity-in-classical-sociology/.

Prathyusha Madhu is a 19-year-old undergraduate student at FLAME University, currently pursuing Psychology and Sociology. Her interests lie in poetry and music.