In pursuit of ‘truth’: The question of objectivity

I was discussing this online the other day and someone said I must totally be ‘faking’ being a woman because women just ‘don’t talk like that’. I guess this blog post will be casual misogyny certified!


We’ve all probably heard the term ‘objectivity’, especially in relation to science. To be objective is to be impartial, to be open-minded and without bias. Scientific research is often considered the prime example of objectivity in practice – it is the study of a measurable reality without bias, with valid and reliable measures employed.

At least, on the surface. Not all scientists agree that scientific inquiry is actually objective, or that such a thing could ever be achieved. In fact, the question of whether objectivity is realistic concept at all is still the subject of much debate. My love of the complicated and confusing has me delving right into that debate with you, so sit back and relax, because we’re going on another journey kids. (There’s probably some really traumatizing child-catcher connotations there… I apologise!)

The process of research

Let’s use Psychological research as an example here. Let’s assume a psychologist has decided to investigate whether online gaming communities – like guilds and stuff in MMOs – affect psychological well-being in any way. They rush out into gaming communities with a string of surveys, maybe even conduct some interviews and observations to broaden their scope. They find an answer to their question; there is an effect on psychological well-being after all!

They come to writing up the research, which naturally means discussing some of the limitations they observed within their research. Maybe they’ll write about sample sizes, the questionnaires they used, demand characteristics and other such stuff. Rarely, however, would they write about the fact they were actually seeking an answer in the first place. That is arguably counter to objectivity – you aren’t being open-minded if you are assuming that there is an answer out there for you to uncover. You’re biased in favour of finding an answer, and maybe that means you find one even when there isn’t one to be found.

It’s an interesting dimension – are we actually uncovering the ‘truth’ in our research, or are we creating that ‘truth’ in our pursuit of it?

The story behind the research

An interesting question that is partially addressed in right ups of research is why you picked the topic you did. Let’s use the example above again – why did our researcher want to study psychological well-being and online communities? Is our researcher a gamer? What’s their experience of psychological well-being thus far? What assumption are they making, besides the assumption that there is an answer to be found for their research question? In short, who is our researcher?

If objectivity is a real concept, who our researcher is isn’t particularly relevant – more important is how they separate who they are, their thoughts, beliefs and experiences, and the research they are conducting. Putting your researcher hat on means forgetting these things, and being open-minded and impartial.

But the researcher hat… is just a hat. It has been argued that the experiences, beliefs, cultural values etc. that people hold will inevitably effect the way they carry out research and what research they choose to conduct. You remember how I mentioned I was doing my dissertation on representations of male and female sexuality in the media? Yeah, I’m interested in that title because of the hetero-normativity and male-centred sexualities observed in female magazines. Why is that interesting to me? Because as a bisexual woman, that doesn’t fit my sexuality. Does that make me biased? Yeah, probably – I mean, I fully expect to find representations of male and female sexuality, and I fully expect to find those represented along traditional (hetero-normative and male-centred) lines.

The same is true of a lot of research. The very nature of having a directional hypothesis (though not all scientific research does) reveals that not only do you expect to find something, but you expect to find it a particular way. That’s not just based on previous research – you picked that research because you believed it, or disbelieved it, and there’s going to be a reason for that. That reason will be inevitably grounded in who you are and your life experiences up until that point.

The tools of research

In my previous post on intelligence, I talked about how IQ tests have been criticized as a test of privilege. That criticism perfectly sums up the argument made by some people about the tools we employ for research, and how they might be problematic in our pursuit of ‘objective truth’ in themselves.

IQ tests were invented from the perspective of what two researchers in intelligence presumed intelligence to be – literary and mathematical problem-solving. It’s no coincidence that those are skills they use all the time as researchers, and most of the people they know probably used them frequently too. I mean, it’s a widely accepted fact within society that researchers are intelligent.

IQ tests are also of an era where not everyone was literate, or even educated (because kids that scored below average were thought to have special needs, and they did some other pretty horrific and shocking things to them instead); certainly the only ones who could be researchers were those of privilege. It seems almost inevitable that they would class their version of intelligence as general intelligence, and that their test would disadvantage the already disadvantaged. These people didn’t understand disadvantage, so they sure as hell didn’t know how to account for it in their measurement tools.

The same criticism can be applied elsewhere. Who the researcher is effects the tools they create, or the pre-existing tools they choose to use. If you believe in IQ tests and the definition of IQ they convey, you will probably use them in intelligence research. In the case of our researcher, what you consider psychological well-being, and how you define an online gaming community, is going to affect the measurement tools you adopt in answering your chosen question. Even if you try not to do it, it will happen to an extent, because you simply don’t walk around constantly aware of how your perception of reality is different to the perception of reality that others hold or how and why that is.

What do you think? Is objectivity a realistic concept? If not, how would you combat that in research?

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In pursuit of ‘truth’: The question of objectivity

2 thoughts on “In pursuit of ‘truth’: The question of objectivity

  1. Reblogged this on FlippinNora and commented:
    All very true. There are some exceptions although quite slight. I find that dissertation students and first year PhD students tend not to be invested in the outcome, and they are probably the few truly open minded investigators, although this is largely because they don’t know the background to the research, but have an inherent, what I would call cognitive or intellectual, interest in an area. They are, however, guided by a supervisor, who is likely to select the methodology.

    Looked down on by a lot of scientists is exploratory research although, again, they may have a personal interest which biases them, but they could just be interested in a topic out of curiosity.

    Paranormal psychology is one area that suffers from this. Experimenters who are skeptics find no effect but believers do.

    I think there is a thingy in physics which says that as soon as you start observing something you change what you observe

  2. All very true. There are some exceptions although quite slight. I find that dissertation students and first year PhD students tend not to be invested in the outcome, and they are probably the few truly open minded investigators, although this is largely because they don’t know the background to the research, but have an inherent, what I would call cognitive or intellectual, interest in an area. They are, however, guided by a supervisor, who is likely to select the methodology.

    Looked down on by a lot of scientists is exploratory research although, again, they may have a personal interest which biases them, but they could just be interested in a topic out of curiosity.

    Paranormal psychology is one area that suffers from this. Experimenters who are skeptics find no effect but believers do.

    I think there is a thingy in physics which says that as soon as you start observing something you change what you observe

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