Is objectivity tarnished by participant sensitivity?

Seeing the world how it ‘really is’ is one of the fundamental aims of any research. Physicists study how matter really exists, biologists how organisms really exist, and sociologists how societies really exist. Studying people and societies is uniquely challenging as any researcher-observer is also part of a society and so must share some (un)conscious assumptions with the society being studied, and so it’s impossible to be as objective about human societies as it is about something further from the self, like cells. Obviously it’s hard to be fully cognisant of the context that we live in.

Notwithstanding the difficulties of being objective, many researchers have had a go at describing societies how they ‘really are’. From Marx’s capitalism, through Simmel’s social structuring and Bourdieu’s cultural capital, social scientists have tried to explain what we do, and why we do it. In the pursuit of objectively understanding human interactions, social scientists have conducted some seriously unethical experiments over the years (see The Top 10 Evil Human Experiments). Thankfully this has resulted in rigorous ethical guidelines that researchers must consider as part of any research. Now, for researchers in my generation, participant sensitivity is a given.

So – I was doing some (ethics approved) research last weekend, working alongside an oral historian, who collects in-depth stories from people to understand how they see the world. I was struck by his sense of solidarity with his ‘informants’, his natural empathy was a boon for eliciting interesting thoughts from our participants. Chatting to him over a knock-off beer I was impressed by his generous world-view and his allowance of everyday agency; he sees people as meaningfully controlling their own lives. This was thrown into stark contrast this week reading Distinction. Bourdieu’s 1984 tome uses both large cultural surveys and interviews to make inferences about the French class system. Bourdieu is disparaging about people’s ability to make choices out of the context that they are socialised in, and is often candidly disdainful of his informants, but he is one of the most widely cited contemporary sociologists. This has made me think about how closely researchers work with people, and how empathy can make us assign more agency than is observable. Perhaps the unsympathetic lens is more objective?

I went back to read Nobody was Dirty and my last sentence is “Credit should be given to individuals’ ability to embrace awareness and reflexivity in the reproduction of consumption practices.” I am now wondering if I only said this because I like my participants and want them(us) to have consciousness of their(our) own actions.

Is there a way to see the world how it really is while still being human?

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4 Responses to Is objectivity tarnished by participant sensitivity?

  1. Stef says:

    This is really interesting. I am not particularly knowledgeable about theoretical issues, but like most oral historians I believe that people act reflexively and make sense of their own lives and actions by choosing from, adapt and challenging the ‘cultural scripts’ they are presented with. Agency is more visible to those who, like oral historians, concentrate on the micro scale, and on individuals’ meaning making. Oral historians usually want, in EP Thompson’s words, to rescue ordinary people from the ‘condescension of posterity’ , and we assume that people’s aspirations are valid in terms of their own experience. Oral history, and much social and cultural history, has been influenced by anthropology – see Clifford Geertz for the ways that individuals use cultural scripts as material for their own improvisations. I can send you some references if you want to follow up the oral history approach more.

  2. Stef says:

    More directly relating to your article’s main question, about how to reconcile objective and subjective understanding, Ray Pahl is quite interesting on this. He considered that you need both ‘experience near’ and ‘experience distant’ forms of social knowledge.’Experience near’ is that of people reflecting on their everyday social worlds, and ‘experience distant’ is that of the sociologist who utilises theory. Pahl proposes a method of developing knowledge which fuses these two – researchers develop their models and theories in partnership with their research participants, so that the researcher is helped to construct a more sympathetic and realistic theory, and the participant develops a new way of understanding their own experience (Ray Pahl ‘Are all communities communities in the mind?’ The Sociological Review 2005)

  3. Noel says:

    Great stuff Tullia, and cuts straight to the chase. Structure and agency are key. Working with social practice approaches gives me (us?) a bit of a handle on this – we can see how collective norms of action in the aggregate are structured by “doing things the right/proper way”, but at the individual level we can see that there is a lot of variation in performances, and that people are able to express clearly WHY they do things the way they do. It seems like a dilemma – practice changes IN AGGREGATE in definitely ‘determined’ and to some degree predictable ways, and yet this generalised drift in practice is due to ‘choice’ at the level of individuals. To a large degree this structuration change happens because people CHOOSE to do “the done thing”, they actively subscribe to the norm, they voluntarily surrender autonomy and difference, to DO social life. To tease out what in everyday practice is chosen, and what is habitual, we only need to ask people. It is usually when they start to get defensive or flustered that we can tell that we have hit on aspects where either agency is in question, or people identify the contradictions in their own beliefs and action.

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