Bessa Whitmore is a Professor Emerita in the School of Social Work at Carleton University. She earned her PhD at Cornell University (1988) with a concentration in program evaluation. Over the years, her focus has been on participatory and collaborative approaches to research and evaluation. More recently, she has focused her efforts on local activism around issues of social justice.
Debunking the myth of truly objective research
Objectivity is often posited as essential: the only path to finding truth in the social sciences. “It expresses the idea that scientific claims, methods, results—and scientists themselves—are not, or should not be, influenced by particular perspectives, value judgments, community bias or personal interests” (Stanford Encyclopedia, 2020). The notion of objectivity and scientific reasoning arose in 17th- and 18th-century European thought, moving away from the medieval dominance of religious orthodoxy and the authority of the monarchy. It has been a central tenet of science ever since.
Yet there are many examples of supposedly ‘objective’ research that carry implicit bias or ideology—evident in what questions get asked, who gets to ask them, who gets to answer them, and even who funds the investigation. Here is one example of how different research questions might be applied to the same situation. Neither is ‘objective’. Each reflects an underlying, though unstated, political ideology.
In the 1970s, there were a series of floods in Appalachia, a coal-producing region in the U.S. People living in the ‘hollows’ (low-lying areas) were flooded out repeatedly, year after year. One year, the federal government leased trailers to those affected so that they would have a safe, interim place to live until the waters receded. The problem was that they could not find anywhere to place the trailers.
Two different organizations decided to research this problem. The Appalachian Regional Commission (a quasi-governmental body) conducted a series of case studies focusing primarily on individual needs (such as education, jobs, and health care), and actions (such as where people chose to live (Gidez, 1978, June–July). The underlying assumptions were based on the dominant sociological theories at the time, that “the lack of civic responsibility represents a deficiency in the culture,” and is a “logical consequence of the traditional social organization of Appalachian society based on family and the culture of individualism” (Ford, 1962, cited in Gaventa, p. 40). The implicit question thus became: Why do people live in hollows? The Highlander Research and Education Centre proposed a different focus: Why couldn’t the government find an appropriate place to put the trailers? Who owns the land?
Each of these ostensibly ‘objective’ studies reflect very different perspectives. In framing their studies, the Appalachian Regional Commission assumed individual responsibility—that people lived in hollows by choice. And because there were frequent floods, that choice implied a lack of intelligence, abdication of personal responsibility, or, at the very least, poor education. This question reflects an underlying conservative ideology, based on individualism, that individual freedom allows people to choose where they live. It was thus assumed that people freely choose to live in hollows (as opposed to making rational choices amongst a constrained set of options).
In investigating the same phenomenon, the Highlander Center assumed a broader lens that looked at land ownership, and more deeply, the capitalist system. It assumed that people live in hollows because they have no choice and thus the problem was rooted in systemic inequality and poverty. (John Gaventa details this research in a book entitled: Power and powerlessness: Quiescence and rebellion in an Appalachian Valley). It turned out that the federal government could not find anywhere to put the trailers because the land was owned by the (very powerful) coal companies of the region, who would not allow the trailers to be located on their (private) property. People lived in hollows because there was no other place for them to live.
During the 1980s, I was a graduate student at Cornell University, where my research courses focused on the importance of objectivity and rigour above all else. At that time, the big issue in program evaluation (my area of focus) was why decision-makers opted not to use our ‘perfectly crafted’ (objective and rigorous) evaluations? A 1983 volume edited by Anthony Bryk, called the Stakeholder Model, suggested a seemingly novel idea: if the evaluators/researchers involved the people being evaluated (or researched), they might actually become more interested in using the reports that were generated. Coming from a social work background, I couldn’t figure out why the idea of participation was so new and controversial, until I finally realized that it was perceived to undermine the rigour of the research! Researchers had generally been taught not to engage with their ‘subjects,’ as that would ruin the purported objectivity and therefore the credibility of the findings. If the ‘researched’ were involved (other than to provide data), the conclusions were assumed to be biased and the research was negatively characterized as ‘subjective’.
In 1983, I attended a workshop at the Highlander Research and Education Center and met John Gaventa (the Center’s research director at the time). I told him this story and he introduced me to something called ‘participatory research’ (which was then common practice in Latin America, India, and Africa, but not yet in North America). He piled my arms full of books on the topic and I duly wrote down their titles, assuming that a place as renowned as Cornell University, with its 23 libraries, would have at least some of these books. There were none!
I never looked back. Gaventa’s example of the fallacy of objectivity in social science research has influenced my work ever since. I read research with these questions in mind: Who is included in the sample, who is excluded, and to what effect? What underlying assumptions are there in what questions are asked (or not asked)? Who funds the research? By making these things visible, we debunk the myth of objectivity, expose power relations, and ask deeper, structural questions that get closer to the roots of suffering and inequity.
Reiss and Sprenger (2020) further assert that “since humans experience the world from a perspective, the prospects for a science providing a non-perspectival ‘view from nowhere’ or for proceeding in a way uninformed by human goals and values are fairly slim.” I would argue, therefore, that given intersectionality, positionality, and the infinite complexity of variables, that there can never be totally objective research, certainly not in the social sciences.
- What does ‘being objective’ mean to you? Can you be ’objective’ about something you observe or experience
- Think of some examples in your experience or in the literature of research or evaluation questions. What underlying ideologies do those questions reflect? Are they implicit or explicit?
- Consider your own interest in conducting research (or evaluation). What question(s) would you want to ask? What implicit perspective(s) do they reflect?
Bryk, A. S. (1983). Special issue: Stakeholder-based evaluation. New Directions in Evaluation, 17:1-108. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Ford, T.R. (1962) The passing of provincialism, in T.R. Ford (Ed.), The Southern Appalachian Region. Lexington, Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press.
Gaventa, J. (1980). Power and powerlessness: Quiescence and rebellion in an Appalachian Valley. London: Oxford University Press.
Gidez, R.M. (1978, June-July). Natural hazards in Appalachia. Appalachia: Journal of Appalachian Regional Commission, 11(6): 1-20.
Reiss, J. and Sprenger, J. (2020, Winter Edition). Scientific objectivity. In E.N. Zalta (Ed.) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2020/entries/scientific-objectivity/