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In the dispute between those who view sociology as actually or potentially a science, and those who advocate some other model of intellectual activity (such as textual interpretation, the sympathetic understanding characteristic of interpersonal dialogue, or the struggle for self-clarification on the psychoanalyst's couch), the concept of objectivity is an important weapon. The term objective may refer to an attitude of mind deemed proper to a scientific investigator: detached, unprejudiced, open to whatever the evidence may reveal. Alternatively, it may be applied to the method of investigation employed, or to its outcome—some theory or substantive knowledge-claim. Much of what is taught in courses on sociological method are procedures designed to protect investigations from bias in the collection or interpretation of evidence: random sampling, the use of controls, piloting of questionnaires with alternative wordings, and so on are designed to eliminate biases and ensure objectivity. A study conducted in the appropriate spirit of scientific objectivity, having rigorously employed such methods, may justifiably claim to be objective in the further usage of adequately representing the object of study, rather than the subjective wishes and prejudices of the investigator.

Opponents of the scientific model for sociological enquiry often argue that objectivity (in attitude, method, or outcome) is either unobtainable or inappropriate in sociology. This may be because of what are deemed to be special features of sociology (and other social sciences) or it may be that (as in the case of some radical feminist critiques of ‘logo-centrism’) objectivity is rejected as an appropriate or attainable standard for any form of enquiry, including the natural sciences.

Objectivity as an attitude on the part of the investigator may be rejected as inappropriate in signalling a morally or politically reprehensible detachment in relation to other human beings, or as unattainable, given the sociologist's own unavoidable social or political engagement. Methodological objectivity may be rejected on similar grounds, but also for independent methodological reasons. It may, for example, be argued that only an expression of shared values, or mutual activity on the part of investigator and subject of research, could elicit the required inter-subjective understandings. Objectivity in the results of sociological research may be rejected on ontological grounds (social action and relations are constituted by shared meanings not amenable to objective analysis; human social life is radically unpredictable because of the special properties of voluntary agency; and so on), or on grounds derived from various forms of epistemological scepticism or relativism.

The rejection of objectivity (even as a regulative ideal) is fashionably widespread in sociology, but it is vulnerable to a number of objections. One obvious source of pragmatic difficulty is that if the best that sociologists can do is offer elaborations of their own subjective prejudices and biases, why should anyone else listen to them, let alone pay out large sums for sociological research?

Subjects: Sociology.


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