Skip to main content
Search form
  • 00:06

    I'm John Scott, Professor of Sociology at Plymouth.And I'm going to be talking about the first coupleof chapters, which are the ones that I co-authored.And what are they about?They set the scene for the book in talkingabout the nature of objectivity and philosophical discussionand its relationship with [INAUDIBLE] relativism.

  • 00:31

    So, John, you're going to summarizethe nature of objectivity and subjectivityin a foundational sense.Yes, what I did in the book was to lookat the philosophical arguments about objectivityin the traditional form, which implieda very absolutist notion of objectivity, truth,correspondence with reality.

  • 00:55

    And I take out some of the argumentsfrom Kant in the philosophy traditionand try and show how they influencesome of the debate within both natural scienceand social science.And threw into question the notion of objectivity.That for Kant, he argued that therewas a basic difference between the worldas it really is, independently of people and the worldas we see it, perceive it.

  • 01:27

    And he wanted to explore how it isthat we can claim that our knowledge, our perceptionof the world is an accurate, truthful representationof that world.We clearly can't, he said, have direct accessto the things in themselves.They're beyond human understanding.But we can try to construct ways of understanding them better.

  • 01:52

    And I really try to show how that influencedquite a long tradition of analysiswithin philosophy and sociology thattried to explore the ways in whichperceptions of the world, our understanding of that world,relative to our position from which we view it.

  • 02:14

    So just as, when we're sitting in a room, we look around,each person in the room is locatedin a different position, sees the world differently,sees a different shape of the room.It's the same room.They're seeing it in different ways.The argument here was that in the social world,we are all located differently.We are different in our sex, our gender, our class,our ethnicity.

  • 02:39

    The social location is different and that gives usa particular perspective or standpoint on the world.And from that perspective, we construct outunderstanding of what the social world looks like.Therefore, these writers argued, all knowledgeis relative to your location.

  • 03:02

    So this therefore implied that therewas some kind of huge contrast between an objective viewof the world and a subjective or relative view of the world.From which I argued, was that we can actuallystart to find a way out of that impasse,particularly taking out the arguments of writer KarlMannheim, who tried to show that whilst everything wasrelative to a particular locationand had this particular standpoint behind it,nevertheless we could understand it as a more or less adequaterepresentation or reflection of that unknown world.

  • 03:45

    And his argument was that the waywe do that is by trying to synthesize all of themtogether, different standpoints.That you get a better model of the worldis if you can understand it from a whole seriesof different standpoints, synthesizing togetherinto a larger picture.And that gives a more accurate representation.

  • 04:08

    Each approach is authentic and valid to its own standpoint.But it's only from the standpoint of synthesiswhich he argues science has to achieve,that gives us an overall view of-- a betterpicture of the world, a gradual approximate moreand more to the reality of the world as it is.

  • 04:29

    And I think that was what I triedto set out as our own starting pointfor the analysis in the book.I think one of the fascinating things about the bookis that it is three voices and that the three voices are notentirely disharmonious.

  • 04:57

    I think you agree on lots of thingsbut there are also some differences between the threeof you.So I wonder quickly, John, whether you could justsummarize for people watching this film,where your position with regard to objectivity and subjectivitydiffers from that of Gayle and Malcolm.Well, this is clearly something that we explored quiteextensively and we had to process it writing itself.

  • 05:21

    And we did start out with some biographical reflectionsin the book that showed how we came to this positionfrom our own experience of the social world.And I think we gradually clarifiedthe fact that although it seemed as if we had sharplydifferent views, what we were doingwas actually using words in a different way from one another.

  • 05:46

    So there was actually much more agreementthan we might have perhaps initially thought.And we realized that ideas like objectivity, subjectivity,relativity, truth, standpoint, have multifaceted meaningsto them.And we might use them in a particular way whichimplies a particular understanding,but in discussion, we gradually startedto realize that these were intertwined togetherand that we could quite constructively developthat argument through our dialogues in the book.

  • 06:25

    And I think we ended up actually with a substantial areaof agreement, having explored our differencesthrough the various discussions in the book.But how would you define the differences still between you,so that when viewers come to watch these films, that thereare some differences still and couldyou perhaps summarize those from your perspective?

  • 06:49

    I think if you wanted a caricature pictureof the extremes, as it were, thenI suppose-- my coauthors may differ,but perhaps Malcolm's caricature picturewould be that of the hard-nosed, empirical researcher,getting to understand the world as it reallyis, strong objectivity.

  • 07:15

    Gayle perhaps coming off from the standpoint of subjectivityand the authenticity of particular standpointsand perhaps her viewpoint.My position saying, well, yes, I can recognize truthin both of those, and perhaps we can bring them together,taking that standpoint of synthesis.But I think as I say, that's a little bit of a caricature.

  • 07:37

    It might have been where we started outin terms of our perceptions of one another,but we gradually moved toward a much moreof an agreement [INAUDIBLE].I'm Malcolm Williams.I'm a professor at Cardiff Universityand I'm going to talk about [INAUDIBLE] and objectivity.

  • 08:07

    I'd like to start where John kind of left off and was sortof making caricatures of our positions.In some ways what he said about me is actuallythere's some absolute truth about it.My starting point was from-- perhaps contrasting to Gayle,my starting point was actually from [INAUDIBLE]social research, as somebody who's worked with large datasets mostly quantitative work.

  • 08:30

    We also taught research methods for many years.And I got thinking about this whenI looked at a lot of research methods, textbooks,which often did two things.First of all, they talked about objectivity as being somethingthat quantitative researchers do.And subjectivity as something qualitative researchers do.

  • 08:50

    And it immediately begs the question,what about mixed methods research,where the two very often come together?And the second thing they talk of,is objectivity value free then?And I don't think it is.My argument for situated objectivitybegins from a rejection of value freedom.And I'll just say something about value freedom and valuesfirst.

  • 09:13

    Value freedom in itself is a formative contradiction.Because if you say, I'm value free,it's immediate that you have one value.But that's a small point.The bigger point is that values, if we think of values,people often think of just moral values.Actually, values run right across from thingslike numeric values, right across the moral valuesand between that you've got thingslike methodological values and science and so forth.

  • 09:37

    And the numeric values themselves,we can think of as being sort of reconstructive.So you might think of temperature for example,refers to real concrete things.But we could use the measure Celsius, Fahrenheit, evenCalvin in extreme temperatures.So if we think of values as being somethingwe as scientists in a broader m attribute to things,then one of those values, along with lots of other onesis objectivity.

  • 10:09

    Objectivity comes out of the culture of science.If we didn't have science, we wouldn't have objectivity.So objectivity is a good making value in science.That's my starting point.The second-- but then two things I think are important.First of all, objectivity is a value.What kind of value is it?

  • 10:30

    Well, I think there are some aspects of objectivity thatwill transcend time and place.And I think there are three things.First of all, when we're conducting any kind of researchin the natural or the social sciences,we have a purpose in doing them.And that purpose will be located in a particularsocial and historic moment.

  • 10:53

    Secondly, we need to differentiate between things,at least at the level of saying, this is a glassand this is a pen.In the same way I need to say, this is John and this is Gayle.We need to make those basic differentiationsof classes of things.And thirdly, and perhaps most importantly,the key value of science itself is a pursuit of truth.

  • 11:20

    But importantly, not the perhaps arrogant beliefthat we can find truth, although I'm not saying that'snot possible in some limited sense, but the factthat we pursue it is of value.So those three things, purpose, differentiation, and truth,I think, lie at the heart of a socially situated objectivity.

  • 11:41

    And social situation itself is not justsimply a methodological one, but it's alsothe context of the society that the sociologist for exampleis working in.So the sociologist will research those kindsof things that are important to our society at any given time.Now, that doesn't mean that one maybesaid this is almost very similar to what they would be saying.

  • 12:07

    That doesn't mean that when they're researching them,they are partisan in what they find out.For example, I've done quite a lot of work on homelessness.Why, as a citizen, I'm very concerned that weeliminate homelessness.But as a researcher, I wanted the truth about homelessness,not what I'd like it to be.I need to find the truth of it.

  • 12:28

    So that's really where I'm coming from.The difference between the [INAUDIBLE] perspectiveand my own one is that I think-- and here Irefer to the work of Alan [INAUDIBLE]I think that the values from outside of the disciplineabsolutely permeate what you do while in that discipline.

  • 12:49

    So I'm like Weber, who believed you kind of metaphoricallyleft them at the laboratory door.I believe you bring them into the laboratory with you.Again, Malcolm, reflecting on the writingof the book and the dialogue within the bookbetween the three of you, again, if you could sketch out howyour position approximately differs from Gayle and John.

  • 13:21

    I actually think that the difference between myselfand Gayle is much less one of epistemological differencebut one perhaps of experiential difference.Gayle and I both respect the kind of researchthat each of us do.We've done very different kinds of research.Where in Gayle's research, subjectivitybecomes very, very important to the way you do research.

  • 13:46

    The kind of research I do, objectivitybecomes terribly important to the way you do research.But, during the course of the book, I've moved very closeto Gayle's position, that I thinka necessary condition for objectivityis to begin from subjectivity.And I think John and I became much closer.

  • 14:07

    We had a discussion about standpoints.And my starting point was to be veryskeptical about standpoints because Ifelt there was a kind of a sense of relativismhere, relativism to the individual.And I had to choose between those standpoints.But I think that we both quite coalesced aroundMannheimian idea of an underlying realism.

  • 14:31

    And probably the area where John and I stillhave some differences, and this iswhat's been so productive about the book,is the around the notion of truth.I unashamedly hang onto a correspondence versionof truth, where there is a logical correspondencebetween the truth of the matter and a statement that's made.But it's a logical rather than an empirical argument.

  • 14:55

    And I think John would take a slightly different view to meon that one.My name is Gayle Letherby and I'm a professorof sociology at Plymouth.And I'm here to talk about a position that I [INAUDIBLE]subjectivity.

  • 15:17

    OK.And I think I want to start reallyby saying that I think, far more for Malcolm,that I think my argument is similar to Malcolm's,but that I begin in a different place.So I find it interesting that in almost all debatesof this time, we start with objectivityand then move on to subjectivity and even we did that.

  • 15:38

    What we don't do is what often happensis, demonize subjectivity.So there's often a demonization of subjectivity.It's something that we need to avoid,something that we need to distance ourselves from.It's always kind of the demon in the room, really.So my position, which I call theorized subjectivity,I first talked about in a earlier publication in 2003.

  • 16:03

    And interestingly, since Malcolm and I met each other,we discovered we were writing about similar issuesin slightly different kind of ways at the same kind of time.I think theorized subjectivity is valuablebecause it recognizes that research is subjective,power laden, an emotional experiencethat's shot through with-- it's relevant to our bodiesand embodies experience, as it were.

  • 16:31

    So it's a position that recognizesboth the personal world of the researcherand it also recognizes the complex relationshipbetween the respondent and the receptor,so how that identity plays out in the research process.It isn't a re-definition of objectivity.It's starting from a completely different place, whichadmits that subjectivity is relative to all the researchthat we do.

  • 16:59

    And this is another place that Malcolm and Idiffer a little bit.And that's not necessarily an advantage or a disadvantage.It's just how it is.I mean, we call it how it is.We need to acknowledge that at the very beginning.And ironically, I feel that an interrogationof the self in research, with referenceto the other in research, gets us closer to the positionthat we won't call objective.

  • 17:23

    But if we didn't do that in the first place.So by starting with subjectivity,we get closer to something that we might call objectivity.So, my work also, or my argument also,isn't a rejection of objectivity,nor is it a support of the idea that we'rebound to positions, that we have objectivity hereand we have subjectivity there.

  • 17:47

    For me, they're interrelated.And it's recognizing the value of the subjective,both positive and negative in both kinds of researchthat we do.I'm not arguing, which sometimes some people think I am,but I'm not arguing that we necessarilyneed to be close to our respondentsor close to the topic that we research.

  • 18:08

    I have myself done research on topicsthat are very close to my own autobiographybut on topics also that are very differentfrom my own experience.But I am arguing that our autobiography is alwaysrelevant to the research that we do.And it's always in there.So I'm arguing, essentially that weneed to think about theoretical objectivity with referenceto what we might call politics of the research processand the politics of the research product.

  • 18:36

    So we've heard of the politics of the research process.We acknowledge that our identity as researchers, our position,our gender position, our age, our sexuality, et cetera, etcetera is always relevant in terms of what we doand what we get.And it also acknowledges that thatcan be-- research is complex.

  • 18:57

    So that, for example, while we acceptthat research is power laden, that power sometimes shifts.So we don't always research down.We sometimes research up.We sometimes research elites.We sometimes, perhaps surprisinglyfind that people that we thought were vulnerablearen't that vulnerable, and peoplethat we thought were in privileged positionsdisplay a vulnerability.

  • 19:18

    So it's much more complicated than is sometimes suggested.Also, in relation to that, it acknowledgesthat not only do we have an impact on the researchthat we undertake, but the research has an impact on us.And I use the analogy of walking into a field.When we walk into fields, we leave footmarksbut we also take away mud.

  • 19:42

    So it's a dynamic relationship, as it were.This common awareness, I think, is sometimes mistakenly seenas synonymous with involvement, which as I said,is not my position.And this in turn, is sometimes seen as synonymous with bias.And bias again, is seen as inevitably a bad thing.

  • 20:03

    My point is that we have to interrogate our biasand see what our bias is doing for the research, as it were,that we're undertaking.It's also very relevant as I said, in termsof the politics of the product.And this is a real kind of hot topic at the moment, wherewe're all being expected to demonstratethe impact of the research that we're doing,and to make evident the relevance and the usefulnessof our research.

  • 20:29

    And whereas we might from a positionof theoretical subjectivity, we might cautiouslyembrace that, we also do need to think, well,who's interests are necessarily being served in the researchthat we're doing?And the impact of gender is taken upwithin the Academy and outside of it,will we end up only able to do research on topicsthat [INAUDIBLE] others define as important?

  • 21:05

    Talking about questions of epistemiology,which is what we're talking about with notionsof objectivity and subjectivity, the questionI've got, more than anything else was,why do I need to know about this stuff?So why?Why do I need to know about this stuff?I'll start.I think it's because so much of the critique of sociologyand the social sciences is saying,either it's all common sense or it's all a matter of opinionor it's just political bias.

  • 21:38

    And therefore sociologists in particularneed to give some kind of defense of what they're doing.But what we're doing does have a validity.It does have an objectivity.And it's precisely because of thatneed to defend that of social science, I think,certainly that battle is one that'smy interest in this area.

  • 22:03

    And I think although we have all sorts of differencesamongst ourselves, even what we think of as scienceand what we like to describe our activity as science,we do all face that view of counteringthat kind of normal objection to much social science, sociology.And I think Gayle tapped into it earlierwhen she was talking about subjectivityand how that gets confused with the notion of biasand that's the reaction that many people have.

  • 22:33

    I think I'd actually agree with that, John.I suppose on some level we're saying, why should you--why should somebody believe my account as a researcherof something, as opposed to somebody else's?And then I would say, well, I'm providing some evidenceof my account of the way the world is or what something is,and the what's the basis on whichI'm providing that evidence.

  • 22:58

    Well, those values-- and here, I think,this is where I think it's so importantto start with subjectivity, whereyou begin with that purpose.There's a purpose and that purposemight be shaped from the outside.And I think that's very important, that-- you mentionedthe impact of gender gap, the whole impact of genderis shaping this from the outside.

  • 23:21

    But how can we do good sociology within that?And where I suppose I think all of uswould proudly part company with the post modern views,we would not say that one accountis as good as another account.Because there are better accounts than other ones.Would that be right?Would we agree with that?

  • 23:43

    Well, what we're talking about is research for accountability.I always talk to my students about theyneed to be responsible for what they're producingand the numbers that they're producing.So I actually ask them to read some pieces of workwhere the researcher has written what I would call a reallybland methodological section where they say,I talked to this many people.

  • 24:05

    I gave out this many questionnairesand then they go on to say, and these are the resultsthat I got.Unless we explain our intellectual as well asour practical process of how we got to what we got,then our knowledge is kind of meaningless, really.So, for me, thinking epistemologicallyis about thinking how what we do affects what we get.

  • 24:30

    And how if the four of us all do it, and get somethingdifferent, then what we might need to dois interrogate our process again to work outwhy we got to a different conclusion.And I suppose, picking up on somethingJohn said about showing that sociology and sociologicalscience is effective, for me it's about showing sociologyand sociological science is working towards objectivity,although sometimes it doesn't necessarily get there.

  • 24:56

    Yeah.I think it comes through in multiple places in the book,that objectivity isn't a state, it'sa long term destination that's probablyreceding as you approach it.But we get better and better but we neverget perfection, as it were.

  • 25:17

    It's a value.It's a value.I wonder if you could each talk a little bit moreabout how we really embed these methodological concernsin our research practice, in designing a researchproject for ourselves.

  • 25:41

    Because I don't think it's necessarily an easy thingto do.Well, to start your first point, I think actuallysometimes the reason that methodology and methodologicalsections aren't as rich as we would want them to,is [INAUDIBLE] because sometimes they're notso-- they think that the audience won't beso interested in those topics.

  • 26:08

    And it's the same with colleagues.I remember when I was a PhD student,the British Sociological Association Annual Conferencewas on issues of method and methodology.And I did my PhD at the same institutionthat I did my undergraduate degree.And I met one of my lecturers in the photocopy room and I said,I don't know why you're going to that conference.It's just going to be boring.Now, for me, I just think methodology is fascinatingand unless we explain the relationship, as I said,between what we do and what we get, then essentially,we're not doing a good enough job.

  • 26:44

    And I think what we also should dois we should rethink-- I talk about this in the book.We should rethink what we understandto be the process of research.And that often it starts before we begin to write about.So when we write up our methodology,we write about our-- possibly our relationship with ethicscommittees and then our recruitment of respondentsand then our relationship with respondentsand when we collected the data.

  • 27:12

    What we often don't write about ishow we got to write the grant proposal in the first placeor how we met with the commissioners who fundedour research and the process.And sometimes our subjective positionon theorized subjectivity needs to start a longbefore the traditional research process started.And if we want to make an impact,probably needs to continue long after the timewhen we do the traditional presentation of our findings.

  • 27:39

    So it's probably a much more extended processthan the traditional textbooks tell us that it is.I'm not-- what Gayle has just said is absolutely right.And I'm not going to say more about the external, those kindof externalities and thinking about our own attitudetoward it because I completely agree with her.

  • 28:03

    But what I would also say is that this can happenat the level of method as well.And a nice example is the work of Herrnstein and Murraymany years ago who wrote The Bell Curve, which was Iguess the philosophy was the neo-racist defenseof intelligence.And the thing where objectivity failed in that bookwas not just absolutely the starting pointabout what counts as intelligenceand what the question is you're asking.

  • 28:34

    But also the methods themselves because theyused-- their principle [INAUDIBLE] aggression.And the models themselves were very weak-fitting models.On the basis of the weak-fitting models,they made huge generalizations.So the level of method sometimes,there's a lack of objectivity.

  • 28:57

    I think probably the only thing I'd add to that would be I'dsay that when it comes to actually designingthe piece of research and getting involved in researchin a particular area, you can't detach itfrom the methodological considerations.They have to structure the way you go about that research.

  • 29:18

    And in particular, for example, what'shighlighted our debate on objectivity,is the research doesn't involve what's beencalled the view from nowhere.There's always a view from somewhere.We're always seeing the world from our particular position.And the key question is how can youstudy whatever it is that you're interestedin without either resorting to a particular positionor implying that somehow you've got a god-like stance above allthose partial positions.

  • 29:53

    And that raises all sorts of questionsabout the kind of sources that it'sappropriate to use, how you get to understand other people'spositions, and build them into your analysis.So you have to have a good understanding of objectivityand wider aspects of methodology if you're going to do research.Otherwise, you do it unreflectivelyand I think you end up with bad research.

  • 30:28

    Let's say I'm a PhD student and I'mwriting my methodology chapter.What [INAUDIBLE] for your expectations of my chapter?Do we want lots of accounts of Kant and Mannheimand Foucault and Weber ad nauseumin thousands of PhD theses?

  • 30:48

    Or something else?What is that something else that youwould be looking for as sophisticated and engagedin a methodological chapter?I think what you look for is, in the jargon,is called reflexivity, someone to reflect on the methodologythey use when it comes to the stage of tryingto writing it up.

  • 31:11

    To actually talk about the processthey went through in developing that research.Because it's very unlikely that the ideas that theyhad in the beginning are what they had at the end.Even down to things like the construction of their sample,the people they interviewed.I think it's important that in PhD source or any kindof account of research, people reflectupon what they did and give a rationaleand justification as to why they did it in that wayand that's how you can, as a reader,assess the validity and reliability of whatit was they're doing.

  • 31:50

    Is their understanding-- it becomes the subjectivityof the researcher as part of the process.I think the starting point for them is perhapsto think about where did the research question comefrom in the first place?Why is it interesting?Why is it important?And then also to reflect on the methodsor the methodological protocol and the methods that they used.

  • 32:14

    Why are they using one particular method or methodsrather than another?If we look at the differences for example, between the UnitedStates and UK, in the United States,the experimental method still remains terribly important,particularly in educational research.We hardly use it at all here outside epidemiology.Now, why is that the case?I'm sure the research questions are not so very different.

  • 32:37

    And likewise, we, on the whole, use longitudinal datamore than the Americans do.And again, why is that the case?Well, one of the answers to that is that the British governmenthas invested very heavily in longitudinal data sets.

  • 32:59

    For me, I think the reason why I reallylike working with PhD students, I really think at the timewhen someone begins to kind of understand methodology and sortof feel it in their bones, really,and what I hope is that a student will sort of understandthat you can really [INAUDIBLE] which is a really useful thingto do, but until you do it yourself,you don't really understand kind of like whatit is to do research and what it is to be a researcher.

  • 33:34

    Because something always happens that you don't expect.And what I really like is when students realize for themselvesis that research isn't hygienic, and researchis messy and complicated.And that they have a story to tell within that,and that they can make it clear and what their story iswithin that kind of messiness.

  • 33:57

    And I think it's also important that, not just PhD students,but all researchers, we understand, notall epistemological superiority to the peoplethat we study because we don't have that.But our epistemological privilege in that we dohave all these resources at our hands.We do have all these books to readand other people to talk to.

  • 34:19

    And we have access, usually, to many, many moreaccounts about an experience than our respondents have.So I think we need to good PhD students are a bit humble now,I think, and realize what a privileged position we are in.Because to be able to study some of these things the way we do.

  • 34:39

    And I think there's an interesting connection therewith what I took from Karl Mannheim in the book,where Mannheim is often misunderstoodbut he talks about the role of peopleas a relatively unattached intellectual,free floating intellectual.And what he meant by that was preciselythat the intellectual, a person working in the universityhas a privilege of their three years as a PhD student,or their career as a long term academic to actuallyhave these kind of resources and discussion and so on,and is therefore able to sit back and take a longer termview, to engage with other people,try and understand the world from a different perspectiveand incorporate all these other views.

  • 35:33

    And that is the privilege of the intellectual.And that's what separates the role of the social scientistfrom the person in their everyday world, whois locked into practical encountersand aren't able to necessarily stand back and floatin that same kind of way.But people do theorize on their own position in the world.

  • 35:54

    We just go out levels.We were able to go to the next levelbecause we have more resources.The TV journalists, particularly the BBC,will constantly talk objective reporting, objective--behind which is implicit this notion that there'sobjective research behind the objective reporting.

  • 36:22

    But the fact that you're saying that's a naive position.Well, sometimes that research is objectiveaccording to the criteria we would set out, but not always.Well, it's a plea to think about what you mean when yousay objective or subjective.And John Reed, the founder of the BBC,certainly had the view that objectivitywas view from nowhere.

  • 36:44

    It was the absolute truth.And yet I think the BBC charter, although it stillrefers to nation shall speak unto nation.And that implies this kind of dialogue and interchangefrom different positions, each nation has a different view.And therefore, strictly speaking,from that journalistic approach, youcan't achieve objectivity without that engagement,that dialogue that is subject to the [INAUDIBLE].

  • 37:19

    I wonder whether you might reflecton how the book might have been a little bit different had yougone at it from talking about a psychological perspective, Idon't know, mind-body duality or the historical perspectiveon how is evidence retrieved over periods of time.I'm not sure your starting premise for me--your starting premise is not entirely correct, Patrick.

  • 37:43

    Because I'd actually applied a science thatwas a natural science was one of them.And much of what I'm saying actuallyhas its roots in the philosophy of science, not sociologyat all.[INTERPOSING VOICES]Yeah, I think it is something that should speakto those other disciplines.

  • 38:05

    As a matter of fact, it is somethingwe were aware of when we decided to talkabout social research rather than sociological research.And this was sometimes a change in the languageas we were writing to make a more general point.I think, having said that, different disciplines dotypically utilize different sourcesand will raise those same questions in different ways.

  • 38:28

    And again, they come at it from different directions.I think to them, there may be somethingdistinctive about the social approach and the sociologistallies then with the historian more than say, the psychologistbecause of our emphasis that we are socially locatedand those values are social cultural values.

  • 38:53

    Whereas the psychologist may takemore of the side of embodiment, what is the other dimensionwe looked at than mind body idea.So I hope we cast a rather more general perspective.I would have thought theorized subjectivity would begood advice for psychologists.Well, interestingly, I have explored some of these issuesin a multidisciplinary [INAUDIBLE]a multidisciplinary group [INAUDIBLE] issues.

  • 39:23

    It was a course that was for PhD students across the university.So there would be psychologists in the roomand medics and historians and sociologists.And I suppose that's one of the things I thinkthat's pretty wonderful about our discipline,is that it really encourages critical debate.And so that's its strength, rather than somethingthat needed to get rid of.

  • 39:48

    And certainly when I've given scenariosto the multidisciplinary groups about how a medic might havea subjective position if he or she is researching canceras opposed to researching nuclear fuel,then students can see it.They can see it.

  • 40:09

    So I think a lot of what we have to sayis relevant way beyond our discipline.Oh, exactly.And one detailed points about researching cancer.I think-- I can't even remember whether it was me or you saidit--I think it was you.You could at some point, make a choiceas to whether you're going to putyour resources into researching cancer or researchingthe conditions that create the cancer in the first place.

  • 40:35

    So that starting point makes a difference in the scienceyou do afterwards.And I think purely in terms of the sourcesand so on that we use, is it's worthremembering that Max Weber, who we go back to so oftenon this question of objectivity and values,at the time he was writing-- was employed as a historian,was writing as an economic historian,publishing the results in journal of social policy.

  • 41:01

    So, it's not a purely sociological argument at all.I think that's interesting and that's a good segueand I think into my next question, whichis, we're living in interesting times, aren't we?I mean, political and social researchis increasingly politicized.

  • 41:22

    I mean there's is the example of the US governmentnow, which is no longer funding any political researchwhatsoever.So if you want funding for your research in that [INAUDIBLE]sense, you have to go [INAUDIBLE]and not to the government.And yet ironically it seems that the laboryou're engaged in in this work is demonstratingthe theoretical and methodological oomphand credibility of social research in order to say,to perhaps people who don't understand social research,look, we're good at this, the research that we're doinghas a lot to offer society and potentiallya lot to offer policy.

  • 42:03

    And I think the cancer example touches on that.But the irony within that seems to methat the more social scientists talk about epistemologyand philosophy, the more they're accusedby those who don't understand social research of beingnaval gazing, of not actually engaging in the real world.So how do you counter that argument?

  • 42:27

    It isn't only external audiences, I don't think,that offer that challenges.There are sometimes challenges within the disciplineswithin which we work too.Because I've certainly seen critiquesfrom colleagues around epistemologically based pieces,let's say, in terms of, well, youknow why don't you just get on with itrather than keep talking about what it means?

  • 42:51

    But I suppose again, at the risk of repeating myself,I just think we can't really justifywhat we've done without making it clearhow we've got the answers that we're telling the world isthe truth or near to the truth.Because it's only half the story, really.Yes, I think that's exactly, the justifications that we come upwith that unless you've got this kind of rationaleand justification, then it simply become assertion.

  • 43:21

    That's what I think.And so if you venture and escape from that idea of,it's all obvious.We know what the world's like, we can come to our policyconclusions and come to these findings and say,there really is something important here.And that our policy would be better,our practice would be better if based upon this knowledgerather than that knowledge.

  • 43:46

    Then you need to be able to give a justification from it.And that justification has to be standing back,as a method story about the work itself,rather than simply asserting the account that you've given.I think also it's that kind of area between sociology,philosophy of science, and methodology area we'rekind of working in in this book, isthat it can be useful underlay where it'sin more than just specific disciplines,but across the piece-- so not just us in this book,but those disciplines are doing I think some work that allof us need, in a sense.

  • 44:28

    We're doing a job there.Though I do have some sympathy for people whosay, well, just get on with it.Because I think sometimes in multi-discipline,we do-- because part of our dutiesas social scientists is to be answerable to,not just our own community, but the community outside.

  • 44:50

    And so when you have terrible social problems,if we can't provide some kinds of answers to those problems,there's not really a point to what we do.Research is like a baton.It's like a relay race.And we pass the baton on to one another.And it's not linear.Because we sometimes track, as it were.

  • 45:13

    But unless we really know what the baton that we're holdinglooks like, then we can't really doanything meaningful with the next stage of what we do.So it's about research should provide guidanceto people who are going to go on and dosimilar kinds of research.And that's why methodology and epistemology are important.

  • 45:35

    So, it is.I think it's also important in justifyingto those who might have very different views,I mean, politicians, for example,want the finding that will support their policy,rather than the findings that will give leadto a better policy.That's a caricature, but very often the case.

  • 45:58

    And if you're going to really have an influence on whatMalcolm was talking about, improving the [INAUDIBLE]and others, about getting on with the research.You've got to be able to justify why your findings are importantand why people shouldn't rely on simply their own prejudicesor their expectations or the researchseems to conform to what they think is the case.

  • 46:24

    When you have the luxury of taking the long view,you say, Patrick, the United States government no longerfunds the research.I raised the issue a few moments ago of The Bell Curve.History has shown that research to be rubbish.In the natural sciences, the classic exampleis the Lysenko Affair.

  • 46:48

    For many years, people living in the Soviet Unionworked to a Lysenkoist methodology in agriculture.And it initially produced some results.But before it's time we were seento be a completely bankrupt approach.So in a sense, the way we do ourselves in science,if we do it in a situation objective waywill, in the [INAUDIBLE], show those things to be the case.

  • 47:17

    I have a confidence.If I didn't I wouldn't be a social scientist.I hope you're right.It strikes me that sometimes that the opponentsof social research, by which I mean political opponents willjust assert, so that while you undertakesome meticulous theoretical and empiricalwork to demonstrate value of your research,that you will have political opponents who will justsay it's rubbish.

  • 47:45

    That's where it comes back to the questionthat Gayle and Malcolm discussed earlier about power, thatwith these kind of questions about knowledgecan't be separated from ideas about power.And that's become a bit tracked with Foucault's workon knowledge and power.But it's clearly the case.

  • 48:05

    And that's why, again, in the bookwe look the way in which these discussions about the validityof knowledge depend upon what Karl Popper talked aboutas an open society, and open area of discourse,which is what the ideal of the university should be like.Habermas talks about the ideal speech community.

  • 48:29

    Mannheim talks about free discussionas that idea of arriving at knowledge in a context wherepower is as much as possible leftoutside the door, left outside the laboratory,the room, where we're discussing.But once you then try to considerthe social and political role of the scientist,you can't escape that power relationshipand you're in a different context.

  • 48:56

    And I think these are some of the kind of things that Gaylewas looking at in the final chapter of aboutthe public role of the sociologist and the audiencesyou address and how you convince and persuade.From ethics, as well, it seems like implicitlyin a lot of what you've said in the discussionso far has been quite an ethical view of the role of researcher.

  • 49:26

    And one could use the classic example of the Holocaust,that the responsibility on the part of the researcherto make sure that we understand as best we canwhat happened in these terrible situations.And people are still today, facing horrific situationsin very many places.

  • 49:49

    And it feels to me that like ethically, we owe it to themto do our very best to somehow account for the livesthat they are leaving.Do you agree that that's a valid example?Yeah.That certainly in my mind, my view, and whatwe were trying to get at in the book when Malcolm's talkingabout objectivity as a value.

  • 50:14

    I mean, ethics is all about values.So in a sense, that statement about objectivityis an ethical position.One should inquire into these notions of responsibilityand obligations.And I think we would reject any kind of viewthat power is the ultimate arbitratorand that might doesn't make right.

  • 50:36

    And it is more hopefully going to bethe ethical consideration, which might oftenmake you seem the weak, the soft feeling approach ratherthan the hard-nosed approach.But I think it is important that that ethical dimension ispresent in our academic practice and in the waythat we react really to politicians and policy makers.

  • 51:06

    I would go even further and say, for me,it's the ethic of the Enlightenment.And if there had been no science, if there'dbeen no objectivity, we have science,we can't uninvent science.Science has made us what we are in the world.And it's terribly important that weretain that ethical objectivity without--and that objectivity, let me emphasize, goes beyond method.

  • 51:27

    It must go beyond method.I guess I think that ethically we have a responsibilityto do the best kind of research that we can in the bestkind of way that we can.And as part of that, personally, Ihave an ethical responsibility to makeit clear my position as a constructor of the [INAUDIBLE].

  • 51:54

    I don't have any more questions.But do you have questions that youthink young, neophyte researchers willwant to pose to you?I think we've covered-- It's more than I thought we would.

  • 52:15

    I suppose [INAUDIBLE] but some of the feedback that we've hadis that what we're doing is quite right.But could be scary for people?Because it's challenging in a way.

  • 52:35

    I suppose I do have sympathy for that but at the same time,find it quite sad that people would sort of feel that they'vegot to go on with traditional ideal,even if they don't think that that traditional ideal,that dominant message is still relevant.

  • 52:58

    And one of the things we say in the bookis that we think that we're just starting at the base,that we would like people to join in with.I think we don't think our debate's over.So we would like other people to join in the debate with us.But in a way that makes it more and more able to talkabout these things.Because one of the things about our disciplineis, as we've said, it allows this kind of debatethat maybe is shut down in other disciplines, where it'stoo scary to admit that your project simplymight be a bit objective.

  • 53:30

    [INAUDIBLE] if you had [INAUDIBLE]in terms of-- what now, in terms of where the book is.You've made the point and you've- just like objectivityis that you're moving towards our conclusion in the book,is actually the starting point for a larger debateon [INAUDIBLE].

  • 53:50

    Yes, I think it would be terribly arrogant to believethat somehow we have written about a position of objectivityand subjectivity and therefore we provided the answers.For us, it's very much an ongoing project.Anything else would be arrogant.

  • 54:11

    But a project that really should take place and notbe pushed under the carpet, which it sometimes is.Yes.You know, the builders know that we've come to the endbecause they've stopped doing work.[LAUGHING]It's also [INAUDIBLE] today, isn't it?I think we've got some post-modernist buildersout there.Was that last bit something you can edit down?

  • 54:32

    [INAUDIBLE] We'll just insert the question, and the questionwill come up on the slide.Unless you want me to pose a particular--[INTERPOSING VOICES]It felt reasonably whole as a little chunk.

  • 54:52

    So I think that's OK.Any other questions that I should be asking,or what were the common questions yougot when you did it in Cardiff?What was Steve's question?Steven was quite damning, wasn't he? [INAUDIBLE] position, but--And the other thing we were asked aboutwas the kind of [INAUDIBLE] thing that we touched on.

  • 55:17

    But we haven't got into it.Do you want to-- [INAUDIBLE] kindof any truth indicators or social constructionist.Do we want to say something about that?Oh,We sort of have, haven't we?[INTERPOSING VOICES]I think that what we're [INAUDIBLE] so no oneis ruling out social constructions.

  • 55:44

    It's just that social constructionscan take on a reality where one social construction cancreate a very different set of conditions to another one.And we can't make up the social world.The social world imposes itself upon us.Durkheim is still right, that thereare social facts out there.

  • 56:11

    I think when we were questioning on this before, we talkedabout this in terms of the natural world that people saw,the physical objects around them, and social constructionsas well.Constructions are [INAUDIBLE] not fixed and immutableobjective categories.

  • 56:32

    And I think I pointed out in the discussionthat people can construct this in front of us as a tableor as a chair, depending on whether they sit on itor sit at it.They can construct I guess doors and windows,but when it comes to it, they allleave the room through the door, rather than through the window.

  • 56:53

    Yes, excellent.So there are constraints for the facts for the physical also.I think there's also sometimes another argument that'sraised by people such as Norman Danzer.The world is infinite.The social world is infinitely variable.And I think that begs the question, whatwould make social life possible if that were the case?

  • 57:17

    And social opportunity is possible.And at one point, I had referred to someof the work of Robert Nozick, where he'stalking about the physical world,about levels of invariance in the physical world,but I've also said that even in the social world,there are, different from the physical world,but there are levels of invariance also.There are things that we are able to conduct ourselvesin our daily social intercourse where we can dependon the reactions we'll get.

  • 57:47

    There is that order.The social order is there.There is a level of invariance.[INAUDIBLE] science is full of very contentious debate.We are probably reaching a consensusnow that global warming is man made.It's a reality that's going to impacton the future of human society.

  • 58:09

    And the basis of that is a lot of data from very many sources.But it's still contested in very many fora.And it's a highly politicized debate.Yet it's based on seemingly robust meteorological dataand experimental data in the field of how gasesreact in certain environments.

  • 58:30

    That's an example I've used in allthe papers I did on objectivity and natural science.My argument there was that it is not impossiblethat the people who have been saying there is global warmingare wrong.It's logically possible.But you probably have to adopt the Peter Principle there whereyou, because of the impact of being wrong,that there is global warming is much greater than the impactof being wrong that there isn't.

  • 58:59

    That's right.There are also all sorts of very obvious constraintsabout everyday objects.That if we consider the table again,and the idea of the table being solid.It clearly seems solid.But if we were able to shrink ourselves downto the size of an electron, it wouldseem remarkably empty and spaciousas the universe around us.

  • 59:23

    So that the relativity of the standpointis in the brain in the natural world.Yet, at the human scale, at that particular standpoint,clearly the table is a solid constraint.So I think you get back to some of the other thingsthat we were talking about, that are arguments about objectivitynot only counter some of these moreextreme social constructionist and relativist standpoints.

  • 59:49

    They are applicable to natural science and physical scienceand understanding the physical world[INAUDIBLE]And being aware of your subjective positionis not just being aware of your identity as a person,but your intellectual reasonings,your intellectual processes, which determine whether or notglobal warming has occurred.

  • 01:00:10

    You know, some of what, when you talkabout the position of theorized subjectivityis pretty much what Barbara McClintock was talkingabout when she talked about the organism,feel for the organism in biology.Very much her kind of-- examining your relationshipto what you're researching, even on the level of biology.

  • 01:00:33

    It's hard though, isn't it, because there comesa point where one has to act.I mean, if the worst prognosis of global warming is correct,then we should be doing something about it right now.And at what point and how do we make those decisionsabout changing the way people's lives are livedand economies are managed and how businesses are run.

  • 01:00:57

    It could be sweeping.I think that's an interesting point that youmake for social scientists.And you know, to use the old cliche, whereI say it's above my pay grade as a social scientist,and as a citizen I think it is [INAUDIBLE] but asa social scientist.I think about your earlier point about what'sthe point of doing this kind of theorizing around a process.

  • 01:01:22

    And we deal with the fact that sooner or later, you're right.We have to do something.So sooner or later, even if we're not sure,that we've reached our objective truth,well, this is a good enough position for usto do something about it.Otherwise we don't do anything.And what's the point of doing it if we're notgoing to do anything?And, if we don't do something with the knowledgethat we produce, somebody else will.

  • 01:01:44

    Because knowledge is political too.So somebody might do something with itthat we think, through our investigationsis the wrong thing.So if one wants to stand by the work that we do then,it's our responsibility to do something with ittoo, even if it means [INAUDIBLE].No, but I think it's important that if you have evidence,that you do your very best to get that into the forathat that evidence must go into.

  • 01:02:12

    I think that's your job as a social scientist, what theycall dissemination these days.But I think also, equally, we have to be careful.Beckett talked about-- [INAUDIBLE]talked about sociologists mostly beingon the kind of the liberal political left.And it's very easy for us to see government, capitalist societyas imposing a set of values that shape our research in a way wedon't want it shaped possibly.

  • 01:02:41

    But equally, we should not start from the position of thinking,this is the way we want the worldto be as liberal, leftist citizensand try to shape our social science for that.


Professors John Scott, Malcolm Williams, and Gayle Letherby discuss their book, Objectivity and Subjectivity in Social Research. They collectively reject the idea that complete objectivity is possible, because everyone has lived experiences that affect what and how they choose to research. Revealing one's own privilege and bias can make research more impactful.

Looks like you do not have access to this content.

Objectivity and Subjectivity in Social Research

Professors John Scott, Malcolm Williams, and Gayle Letherby discuss their book, Objectivity and Subjectivity in Social Research. They collectively reject the idea that complete objectivity is possible, because everyone has lived experiences that affect what and how they choose to research. Revealing one's own privilege and bias can make research more impactful.

Copy and paste the following HTML into your website