Can social research be conducted in an objective way? We need to address this question in order to get a true picture of social research.
Politics manifests itself in a number of different ways in social research:
1) Sometimes it is the belief and value system of the researcher that impedes total objectivity. For example, feminists highlight the deprived conditions of females in order to create more sympathy for their cause.
2) Funding for research. Government and other organisations have an interest in the outcome of the research and thus only fund research projects in which they have a vested interest; they will only fund projects that uphold their opinions and world-views. For example, it is very unlikely that government will fund a project concerning government malpractice.
The projects that they do fund is usually conducted uncritically; it is only concerned with the effectiveness of implementing the policy and not the actual validity of the policy itself.
3) At times, gaining access to an organisation is difficult becuase the organisation is more concernend about its public image. This may result in making a deal or what is called a ‘research bargain’ that delineates what is and what is not permissible. Even after negotiation and gaining access the participants maybe at odds with the researcher because they fear a hidden agenda.
It is, I believe, impossible to achieve a complete impartial and objective research study. It is my contention that to ask complete objectivity from sociology is to place a burden on it more than it can bear. Sociology is unlike mathematics. Mathematics is the only discipline where complete objectivity can be achieved. It is exact; it is precise; Its propositions are axiomatic and self evident. Sociology on the other hand is not so exact; it is testable; subject to criticism; rectifiable and falsifiable. Its sphere is concerned with society and the way it is organised. Research studies as evidence proper have still to prove themselves worthy of the authority they claim to possess.
Hope you don’t mind if I add a few comments…
I think you are broadly correct in your assumption that much of social research cannot be objective. But I don’t quite agree with your reasoning. Social science is based upon measuring human interaction. This means that there will always be bias, sampling error and ambiguity, whether you use quantitative or qualitative methods. Therefore, of course it is not comparable with any objective science such as mathematics, which is the example you use here. But the issue is, I don’t think it was ever comparable to begin with.
I think your analysis struggles because you appear to place evidenced research – that can be categorically and utterly proven (such as mathematics, physics and the objective sciences etc) above social research that is more exploratory and perhaps open to interpretation. But the difference is that the former examines natural, objective laws, while the latter attempts to measure human behaviour, and the ever changing social world. The fact that social research cannot be completely proven in such an objective way is perhaps its greatest strength. It is also worth pointing out that any peer reviewed article generally notes its limitations regarding the methodology.
You are completely right, however, to point out the political influences attached to funding. It certainly cannot be denied that for many academics and students in the social sciences, funding is always a determining factor. I’d also add governments and policy organisations are always much more willing to give funding out where statistical evidence can be produced, to validate their own policy ideas.
Anyway, interesting and good post! Thanks alot for it.
Thank you Adam. Your input is greatly appreciated.
I was arguing on epistemelogical grounds. Yes, social sciences have never claimed to be comparable with other bodies of knowledge like mathematics. But its presentation is done in just such a way.
I don’t believe that any body of knowledge can claim: 1) certitude beyond the challenge of skeptical doubts; 2) finality beyond possibility of revision.
This is the same with science, history and social sciences. The moderate sense of the term knowledge is: testable, rectifiable, falsifiable.
Anyway, thank you for your comments.