Sociology and the Objectivity Problem

Reprinted from Sociology and Social Research Volume 54">


Sociology and the Objectivity Problem

Reprinted from Sociology and Social Research Volume 54, Number 2, January 1970

(Author’s note: This article, written in the late 1960s, is of particular interest today because of the subsequent rise of "postmodernism" within the social sciences. I can’t help but wish that it could have been more widely read at the time.)


Arguments over the degree to which objectivity is possible in sociology are too often couched in terms and ideas already rendered obsolete by the changing consensus as to the nature of knowledge forced upon us by recent developments in biology and physics. This has necessitated the discarding of yesterday's "truths" (and therefore yesterday's concept of objectivity), as changing paradigms give new meaning to observed events, and as awareness grows of the feedback effect of researchers and their theories upon the very reality which they attempt to measure.


social theory -- objectivity -- value neutrality -- social responsibility -- will-to-power -- world view -- positivism -- intuitionism -- perspectivism -- subjectivism -- "ideal types" -- historicism -- relationism -- intersubjective testability -- instrumentalism -- paradigm -- replication -- falsification -- proto-science

Disagreement over the degree to which objectivity is possible in the social sciences is causing ever-more-serious questions to be raised by thoughtful sociologists concerning the validity and usefulness of much of the research being carried on today under the aegis of their discipline. But, although objectivity is clearly the basic underlying issue, we find the problem as yet almost universally ill-defined and poorly understood. It is not surprising, therefore, that the quarrel proceeds under many guises and with much setting up and tearing down of straw men. That the problem itself is a real one, however, and of great significance and urgency, is evidenced by concerned comments such as the following: "First questions are not asked but assumed, thus feeding the myth that the new research techniques start with no a priori assumptions. Yet modes of analysis and tools are never neutral. They shape and are shaped by their cultural context and their users.'' (1)

"We are just entering the period when the society will be ever more rapidly changed (and I believe shaken) by the much more far-reaching products of scientific research. But again, this problem is not the natural scientist's concern, whereas it must be ours.... Are we to take no scientific or ethical interest in the results of our own social intervention ? Whose field of study is this, if not ours ?" (2)

What these writers are saying is representative of the myriad of questions being raised today about the widespread equation of value neutrality or even ethical irresponsibility with objectivity. (3) Others are claiming that, regardless of what we mean by objectivity, it can have no place in the social sciences. They say that the ideal of "factual knowledge" or public verification is altogether inapplicable, and that "will to power" and political success are all that matter. The implications of the latter statement are obvious and no less disturbing than those of the quotations above. If objectivity in the social sciences is not possible, then a science of the human being in society is not possible (only a pseudo-science of techniques of manipulation ).

Before moving either to accept or reject such a conclusion, however, perhaps we should make a much more sustained effort to examine the entire problem. We need to approach this task not only from a distinctively sociological perspective, but in the light of clearly identified philosophical assumptions about the nature of "man, the knower", and that which he would come to know by sociological means. Could it be that our reluctance as sociologists to recognize these assumptions -- that is, the total world view within which we operate -- has brought us to our present unhappy pass? Or even worse, when we argue about the possibility of objectivity in the study of humankind by humans, are we actually arguing from two conflicting viewpoints on the nature of reality, both of which have been rendered obsolete by the advance of scientific knowledge: knowledge which we stubbornly refuse to incorporate into our "social" thinking? Is the very concept of objectivity, at least as both positivists and "intuitionists" presently define it, now useless because of the philosophical blinders to which both groups cling so unquestioningly and often unknowingly?

Certainly the answers to these questions cannot be easily found. But a beginning might be made by attempting to identify what is usually meant by the term in common scientific and lay language. It seems that there are, in fact, two widely accepted meanings which, although often used interchangeably even by scholars, should not be confused. There is the traditional dualist philosophical concept involving the possibility of the existence of externally "real" facts or knowledge, independent of the mind of the observer. According to this view of the objectivity of knowledge, bodies of knowledge exist external to humanity as "social facts," "historical facts." "physical facts," etc., eventually to be revealed intact to the researcher by means of scientific research, empathetic understanding or whatever.

The second concept commonly identified by the term has to do with the presence or absence of bias or prejudice on the part of the observers as they pursue their task of selecting, documenting, and interpreting facts. These two concepts are often hopelessly entangled within the confines of the single term by many of those who are today embroiled in the argument over objectivity.

The argument involves two conflicting points of view as to the nature and degree of objectivity possible the social sciences. One group (including most positivists) starts by defining objective knowledge in the first of the two senses described above and argues that this necessitates the strictest possible emulation of the techniques and quantification procedures employed by the natural sciences. For adherents of this position, value neutrality on the part of the researcher is not only a possibility but an imperative, if objectivity in the second commonly understood sense is to be achieved.

The other group (now including many modern thinkers of existentialist leanings) starts from a vastly different set of philosophical assumptions concerning the nature of knowledge. They regard it as subjective -- dependent upon how the mind of the individual observer happens to deal with that which it encounters. Some extreme idealists in the past have even gone so far as to maintain that not only knowledge about reality, but reality itself, has no existence apart from the form attributed to it by the mind of man. Today those who tend toward the subjective point of view reject what they term "scientism" as at best naive, and at worst, Machiavellian or cowardly.

Repudiating the traditional philosophical basis of objectivity, they often deny out of hand also, any possibility of objectivity in terms of the researchers' procedures. It is useless, they maintain, to talk of limiting and controlling the effects of bias on the part of the observer. They argue that only intuitive and empathetic understanding of human actions in countless concrete situations will reveal the "essence" of social reality, but that, as all views are dependent upon the values of the observers, none of them can possibly be the source of valid generalizations about human behavior. They hold that, as ultimate reality resides only in "mind", (in those Kantian forms within it that mirror matter or experience) the significant relationship giving rise to the objectivity problem is that of harmony or coherence among "ideas" (understood in some non-naturalistic, Platonic sense) and the "appearances" which impinge upon the individual through the senses. For many positivists, on the other hand, what is involved is an objectively "real" body of knowledge ordered by immutable laws of nature -- all this awaiting discovery by an external observer whose association with it is merely that of an explorer of hitherto uncharted territory.

Both groups may well be handicapped by outdated and misleading conceptions about the nature of the human as knower, and about the scientific approach to knowing. It possible, also, that these conceptions may have trapped both groups in fruitless positions both of which, if pursued to their logical ends, could lead to a rejection of the systematic application of intelligence to the task of gaining knowledge about human affairs.

In the light of recent advances in biology and physics does it any longer make sense to continue believing that objectivity is possible only to the degree that we can order the components of our subject matter by counting, and then match this up with what has been established for all time as being the essence of what is "out there", in order to see if we have achieved correspondence with objective reality ? And surely, fully as fruitless is the view that all knowledge is totally subjective -- that each individual mind is free to forge its own arbitrary version of reality -- whether the source of this version be waking experience, dreams, or a psychotic interlude. However, useful or not, such views on objectivity are very much with us today, to a considerable degree determining how we approach the argument as it applies to sociology.

It can be seen that proponents of both of these traditional views insist upon interjecting some mysterious, non-natural component ( to which they attribute superior or antecedent existence or being) between the knower and the existential environment which he seeks to know. Once these leftovers of the myths of past centuries are cleared away, the objectivity problem emerges as at once more critical to the knowledge-building task, and vastly more difficult. Simply expressed, it revolves around the relationship of a knowing or learning organism to that existential reality (the world of matter) which it endeavours to know. The difficulty arises from the fact -- so long denied by egotistical humans -- that our species is irrevocably part and parcel of that material world which we would hope to know. Human beings are no more and no less natural than that which they study, whether the subject matter happens to be society or rock formations. But if we wish to claim that we are operating as knowledge builders rather than as theologians or ideologues, then we must face this difficulty honestly, rather than persisting in avoiding it through the introduction of red herrings in the form of ghostly absolutes such as "mind" or "ideas" of non-natural origin or immutable "bodies of knowledge" derived from untestable assumptions.

However, three issues are laid bare in all their complexity and difficulty once we accept this newer, and necessarily braver, approach to the problem of objectivity, and it can be argued that theorists have consistently failed to deal adequately with these. The first is the old problem for which the idealists and the existentialists have sought solutions in a retreat into subjectivity. It concerns the researcher's approach to, ordering of, and inferring from his subject matter: in summary, the effect of the researcher's frame of reference, or "world view" upon the knowledge produced. For example, in studies of "social deviance" the researcher's values determine what kind of activity is chosen to be pulled from the shadows into the glaring light of public scrutiny, as well as which specific aspects of the behavior are considered significant enough to measure. This is merely another way of saying that one obviously cannot study what one does not perceive; that one will not study what one does not consider worthy of selection in terms of the often unrecognized criteria for relevance which guide each person’s approach to the knowledge quest.

Then, in the process of measuring, our researcher sometimes resembles nothing so much as a child desperately trying to measure with a toy balloon the flow of water under a bridge. Conclusions can vary among sociologists according to the questions asked, the source of the answers, and the personality and status of the questioner. Here we are dealing with the second issue of concern: the interaction between would-be knowers and their subject of study, true of the natural as well as the social sciences, but magnified and far more fraught with peril for objectivity in the latter case.

The third aspect of the objectivity problem confronts us with an even greater difficulty: the subsequent effect of the knowledge that has been constructed during the course of research (and has thereby become a new and significant "input" into the human behavioral environment) upon the very social relations under study -- in fact, on the entire process of social change. Again, in the case of studies on deviance, documentation of the extent to which drug-taking, sexual promiscuity, etc. is prevalent in society often serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy, as it then becomes the basis for changes in social mores.

If the quest for knowledge about social reality meant merely developing better lenses so that we could see "less darkly" what is out there waiting for us, all neatly ordered, our objectivity problem would be less grim. But, although an acceptance of the existence of a common reality would seem to be the prerequisite of any science, human knowledge concerning it must surely be an ever-changing product of the process of our meeting and dealing with our surroundings, which are being altered and shaped by this process as, inevitably, is humanity itself. What we do in our search for the "true" and "good" is determined by what we selectively perceive. And our reliable knowledge, as well as our idea of "value," is produced by what we do, and especially (in this era of high speed communications systems) by what we research and write. That knowledge, in turn, determines the shape of our future.

Recognizing the objectivity problem is, of course, not solving it. Indeed, at least the first aspect of the problem was recognized over a hundred years ago. Karl Marx first managed to break out of the traditional conceptual framework enough to identify the extent to which our very categories of thought are shaped by the social context, what we could call the pattern of our doing. As he wrote in the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy: "It is not the consciousness of men that determines their social existence but on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness. " (4)

Although Marx contributed the original insight, he was apparently too much influenced by Hegelian dialectical thinking to perceive the problem it presented for the knowledge quest. Max Weber (5) did see this, however, and he searched long and agonizingly for a solution, finally deciding that a sufficient degree of objectivity could be possible only if researchers maintained a rigid separation of the world of "fact" and that of "value." He felt that this must somehow be managed even though human knowers were themselves in a sort of reciprocal relationship to both worlds, but seemingly fully contained in neither.

From this rather paradoxical location, what could become apparent and meaningful to humans would never be more than a partial truth about reality; therefore Weber concluded that objectivity could not exist in the sense that a "whole" truth discovered by the researcher could be matched for "goodness of fit" to some antecedent existential whole. It could, however be tested against an "ideal-type" construct of the partial reality. This construct was not merely to be deduced from a coherent, logical system, but was to be based on a rational arrangement of characteristic components actually perceived, or at least surmised, to be related in empirical reality. Weber's ideal-type "bureaucracy," for instance, was supposedly derived by means of empirical observation of numerous formal organizations, each of which possessed some of the bureaucratic characteristics in his subsequently constructed ideal-type, but none of which had all of them. Although, admittedly, these characteristics would be selectively perceived in terms of one's values, Weber believed that the fact that the completed "types" would be carefully constructed and defined meant that they could be used by others in order to study unique situations and events. For Weber, objectivity was possible to this extent.

It can be seen that Weber's ideal-types were to be arrived at through a combination of deductive and inductive reasoning processes. It can be seen, as well, that they were intended as tools by which aspects of the world of "fact" could be selected and ordered, rather than as exact images of any pre-existing bits of empirical reality. Weber did not want them to be confused with metaphors or with generic concepts, as he understood the latter. He seems to have accepted the prevailing definition of these as strictly classificatory devices -- symbolic containers or word baskets into which one tossed a number of empirical referents on the basis of their similarity in terms of some component previously selected as the crucial defining characteristic or essence. But he felt that further development of such categories into abstract systems of relationships (theories) would not be a fruitful enterprise for social science, because the reality which they served to classify was too subject to rapid change. It seems clear also, from his writings on methodology, that he did not intend that his ideal-type constructs should provide the groundwork for abstract theoretical systems such as Parsons later attempted.

Weber appears to have felt no great compulsion to wrestle with what has been identified as the third aspect of the objectivity problem. Or perhaps it might be fairer to say that he really believed that value neutrality on the part of the researcher was possible and feasible, and that this somehow could ensure that such newly accumulated scientific knowledge would likewise have a neutral effect upon subsequent human activity. For if one actually accepts the idea of the existence of an unchanging account of the world of "fact" -- awaiting discovery by researchers -- how could one consider the acquiring of closer approximations of this knowledge as "interference?"

Karl Mannheim, working in Germany after Weber's death, apparently recognized that the questions raised by the breakthrough of Karl Marx, and to which Weber had devoted so much time and effort, were still largely unanswered. From the beginning Mannheim confronted the problem of objectivity head-on, and it became the central concern of his earlier, theoretical period and his later, policy-formulating years in England.(6)

In Mannheim's work, Weber's concept of partial truths was developed into the idea of "perspectivism" or "relationism." He used two examples rather effectively to explain what he meant. A man on a swiftly traveling train looks out a small glass window, at the seemingly moving landscape. He never sees the same picture twice. What he sees depends upon his perspective which, in turn, is determined by his relation to the passing landscape. Whether the scene itself is in continual flux or eternal stability is irrelevant. All that he can achieve or ever hope to know is a multiplicity of changing pictures. Or a man struggles upward on a mountain. His pictures, too, change continually as he climbs, and only those who climb at his side have a similar perspective on reality. But as he moves upward his perspective enlarges; now he sees not only the rocks and bushes before his eyes, but he is able to look downward, and far across the valley to other mountains. This is the detached intellectual, freeing himself from cultural blinders, increasingly able to juxtapose a number of perspectives, and thus to achieve an ever greater degree of objectivity.

Trying to break out of the traditional world view which postulated either a causally ordered world of pure matter determined for all time, or else an antecedently structured world of ideal form and essence -- while at the same time fearing the complete loss of the eventual goal of certainty, and the anarchy and meaninglessness which he associated with the resultant void -- Mannheim could not quite bear to accept the epistemological implications of Einstein's theory of relativity.(7) So he drew back from what he recognized as the logical implications of his line of thought, and retained the assumption of an antecedent body of knowledge of the "good" and "true" together -- the mountain up ahead which the mind of mere man could never grasp in its entirety. But he believed that the safest, easiest ascent could be selected, and the pitfalls avoided, by the few lone guides who dared to accept the responsibility of venturing far ahead and viewing the stars.

Although Mannheim was in agreement with Marx in his emphasis on the need to strive for detachment from prevailing world views in order to make possible an objective analysis of what is, he could not accept Marx's approach to the issue of interference with the process of social change, or what should be in the future. For Marx, although successful in breaking out of the prevailing cultural and social viewpoints of his time, failed to move beyond the traditional dualist philosophical conceptualization of the nature of reality.

Marx still saw the future, as did Hegel, as an "unfolding" of the natural essence of some predetermined reality. This simplified (or made irrelevant) the value issue for Marx. For him, although men with awareness or class consciousness must accept the responsibility for contributing to change -- through participation in revolutionary activity, or by revealing the weakness and corruption of existing institutions -- they are exempted from the agonizing question of responsibility for the direction that this process of change is to assume. All this is predetermined. (8)

Marx had seen no need to separate the realm of fact from that of value because, according to him, much of what was observed as factual was instead the product of "false consciousness", rooted in social existence, but containing within itself a true value or essence which was being stifled by bourgeois social institutions. If the social conditions creating this false consciousness were removed, so too would be that which had prevented the entity from achieving its full value potential. Mannheim had accepted that portion of Marx's theory concerning the effect of social existence upon human consciousness, with all the implications for objectivity in the social sciences that this entailed. But he disagreed with Marx's assumption that merely to uncover the social source of bias, or to become aware of it, was to attain objectivity. Like Weber, he claimed instead that every perspective contained a partial truth. But he thoroughly rejected Weber's separation of reality into two realms -- that of "fact" and "value" -- each to be verified by different sets of criteria.

Mannheim felt that all attempts at knowing resulted in knowledge that had the consequence of edging humankind in one direction or another, and therefore all were involved with values and goals. Inevitably, therefore, he came out for the necessity of planning the direction of knowledge seeking, and thereby of social change. But in the back of his mind there seems to have remained the idea (or the hope) of absolute truth and value -- the mountain, and the one best path upwards. In addition, he apparently held to a belief in the possibility of a few extraordinary men shedding the constraints and conditioning of their pasts, and willing "freely" that which was in some absolute sense, the "good" and the "true." For how, without this essentially existentialist assumption, could Mannheim have retained faith in the values of the "guides" (his detached intellectuals) who were to determine humanity's choices? Still, never quite having resolved his dilemma, he wrote that he would awaken sometimes in the dead of night, in a cold sweat, suddenly asking, "But who will plan the planners?"

The productive periods of both Weber and Mannheim in Germany were spanned by that of one of the greatest of American social philosophers. John Dewey seems to have covered much of the same early ground, where the objectivity problem is concerned, as did Marx, Weber, and Mannheim -- but unlike the latter, he refused to be satisfied with the partial resolutions offered by historicism, neo-positivism, or existentialism.

Dewey felt that the key to the answers resided in the complex nature of the relationships among the processes of knowing and of valuing and of doing. He put the problem this way: "Man has beliefs which scientific inquiry vouchsafes, beliefs about the actual structures and processes of things; and he also has beliefs about the values which should regulate his conduct. The question of how these two ways of believing may most effectively and fruitfully interact with one another is the most general and significant of all the problems which life presents to us." (9)

Specifically, Dewey (like Mannheim) rejected what he considered to be the outmoded and intellectually crippling idea of two realms of reality -- that of fact and of value -- each requiring its own method of verification. However, he always emphasized that this is not to say that each type of subject matter is not entitled to its own characteristic categories, according to the questions it raises and the operations necessary to answer them. But where a distinction is necessary it is one of methods of operation; not, as Weber believed, of kinds of reality.

Closely aligned was Dewey’s rejection of the traditional separation between thought and action, or theory and practice. As he pointed out, once one recognized that human intelligence is a method operating "within" the world rather than "upon" it, the old duality is meaningless. And responsibility comes to rest at last where it belongs -- on the individual knowers and the processes by which they act out a hypothesis either symbolically or actually, and by which they assess the value of their action in terms of consequences. To the objection that no one can assess all the consequences of any act, Dewey answered that of course the evidence is never all in; we make our choices on the basis of postulated probabilities, and these become the new hypotheses to be tested as new consequences flow from new experience. No other means of verification or sources of the "good" are available to us. Dewey maintained that for too long we have deluded ourselves with the myths of absolutes created in our image, in our fruitless and humanity-defeating quest for certainty. He went further than Mannheim in rejecting all fixed beliefs about values, save the "one value of the worth of discovering the possibilities of the actual, and the striving to realize them. Whatever is discovered about actual existence would modify the content of human beliefs about ends, purposes, and goods. But it would not, could not, touch the fact that we are capable of directing our affection and loyalty to the possibilities resident in the actualities discovered. An idealism of action that is devoted to creation of a future, instead of staking itself upon propositions about the past, is invincible.'' (10)

Values, for Dewey, were continually being derived and evolved from the actualities of the material world, as humans increased their knowledge (or potential for control). But for Mannheim, it seems that the ultimate human value, "freedom of will," was achieved only to the degree that man (as the detached intellectual) was able to free himself from his material environment.

It would appear that any potentially fruitful position on the problem of objectivity must involve the acceptance of Dewey's position on the relationships among knowing, doing, and valuing, as these processes occur in the natural world. This, in turn, requires some degree of reconciliation of the old subjectivity-objectivity dilemma, along with a discarding of the obsolete philosophical trappings of both the naive realist and idealist world views. Herbert Feigl suggests such a substitute for the older epistemological positions on objectivity in what he considers the more adequate formulation of "intersubjective testability." He says: "What is involved is not only the freedom from personal or cultural bias or partiality but -- even more fundamentally -- the requirement that the knowledge claims of science be in principle capable of test .... on the part of any person properly equipped with intelligence and the technical devices of observation and experimentation. The term "intersubjective" stresses the social nature of the enterprise.'' (ll)

Karl Popper's perspective on the objectivity issue is somewhat similar. (12) His "hypothetico-deductive" approach to knowledge building in general provides us with a more realistic alternative to both the supposedly strictly inductive approach of the positivist and the deductive one of the idealist. More specifically for the social sciences, Popper recommends a technological approach, or "piece-meal engineering" combined with continuous critical analysis of the changes wrought. He claims that this would force social scientists to submit their theories to definite standards of clarity and public refutability, in the "real" world. It is this norm of previously-agreed-upon means of attempting to falsify hypotheses that ensures objectivity, according to Popper. The philosophical "test for truth" (or guarantee of objectivity in the knowledge quest) therefore becomes failure, thus far, to have been falsified by the tests applied by, and acceptable to, the relevant scientific community.

The second of the two understandings commonly involved in the concept of objectivity -- the absence of bias on the part of the observer -- must also be seen in a different light once the "spectator theory of knowledge" has been discarded. For those who hold that objectivity is only meaningful or possible if seen as "intersubjective testability," observer involvement and the inevitable bias that this necessitates is something to be recognized and controlled for, rather than something that one can hope to exclude. According to Gunnar Myrdal, for example, this type of objectivity can be sought (albeit necessarily never fully realized) through explicit formulation by the observer of his evaluative framework. (13) W. K. Werkmeister also enunciates this position. (14) He says that objectivity is achieved not by ignoring the values in which the social scientist is enmeshed, but by stating them explicitly as parts of the projected research, so that they too become hypotheses to be tested in terms of consequences.

Like John Dewey, these scholars apparently visualize the crucial relationship in the knowledge quest as that between the knower and the world of experience which he or she desires to know. The basic premises of Dewey's system remain compatible as well with recent discoveries in the natural sciences about the nature of matter. The latest biological research into DNA and RNA molecules has destroyed the intellectual foundations for a belief in some unattainable vital substance or force beyond matter, which differentiates a living organism from inorganic materials. Harold Hatt, in Cybernetics and the Image of Man, summarizes some of the necessary implications of recent discoveries in physics for our understanding of reality: "The real disruption occurred when it was discovered that elementary particles cannot be known independently from the act of knowing them. They cannot be known objectively because the act of knowing them is involved in their behavior. We cannot observe them without their being disturbed in the process. Thus nature has come to be relinked with man, at least in the sense that it is no longer possible to talk about the natural world as something separate from man.'' (l5)

Hart quotes A. D. Richie as follows: "Scientific observation does not consist, as many seem to believe, in sitting with your mouth open waiting for things to happen. It consists of going about and interfering with things." (16) Later in the same book Hatt states that the more we accomplish by means of technology the more we are faced with the ethical dilemma of what we should push further and what we should avoid bringing about. He says "The matter of values and priorities confronts us not simply as an intellectual dilemma. but as a practical matter of decision and policy." (17)

Jacques Ellul expresses the same concern in The Technological Society. (18) He discusses the complete separation of thought and action which has been effected by "technique." One might emphasize, however, that the root cause of this separation (and the real menace of our age) is not technology itself, but the incredibly dangerous and still-dominant world view that compartmentalizes reality into two parts: the world of "fact" and that of "value''. The persistence of this obsolete mode of thinking is moving us swiftly toward that complete abdication of human responsibility for the consequences of humankind's interference with nature that Dewey had feared. The machine takes over while the intellectual retreats into an imagined realm of "pure thought." Intelligence, divorced from action, is thus reduced to fantasy. Human action, where it continues to occur, is likewise divorced from intelligence, and comes out violence. One might well ask what part sociologists have been playing in all this. Again, in the words of John Seeley, "Whose field of study is this, if not ours?"

To be, as intelligent human beings, wholly responsible for constructing knowledge both of what is true and what is good! Does this imply a complete rejection of the possibility of objectivity, as some existentialists would claim? Not at all! Relations exist, with immeasurable potential for evolution in a myriad of directions; and the more precise and communicable the complementary methods employed to define them, the more we will be able to alter them in desirable directions. Dewey's "instrumentalism," by which he meant the application of intelligence to relations in reality in the process of problem solving, is a social as well as an individual process of knowledge- and value construction. The development of conceptual tools would be a meaningless endeavour if they were not for purposes of communicating that surrounding reality which they enable us to know. In fact, a reasonable degree of consensus as to exact meanings of concepts is a necessary (though far from sufficient) condition for the progress of science, and it is, in part, this consensus which makes objectivity possible.

Thomas Kuhn has recently added what may well prove to be the most enlightening dimension of all to the objectivity problem. In his fascinating book, The Structure of Scientific Revolution, (19) he stresses the significance the ongoing process of creating knowledge not only of the methodical accumulation of "facts" (defined as assertions of tested regularities in nature), but of revolutionary changes in world views or "paradigms" in terms of which researchers select and interpret their information. He discusses the early development of the natural sciences as follows: "anyone examining a survey of physical optics before Newton may well conclude that, though the field's practitioners were scientists, the net result of their activity was something less than science. Being able to take no common body of belief for granted, each writer on physical optics felt forced to build his field anew from its foundations." (20) Although Kuhn is addressing himself to the problem of knowledge building in the proto-scientific stages of the natural sciences, few sociologists will fail to draw an intriguing parallel here, with the present situation in their own discipline.

Kuhn goes on to develop an evolutionary view of science which is surprisingly compatible with the conception of nature as postulated by Dewey and substantiated by the recent work of physical scientists. He sees science progressing by a series of revolutionary selections of new and more fruitful paradigms as a result of conflict within the scientific community. These revolutionary upheavals are interspersed with long periods of "normal research" carried on within the framework of currently accepted paradigms, and it is during these periods that great progress is the accumulation of factual knowledge is achieved.

It is obvious that only to the degree that a reasonable amount of consensus exists as to the value of the scientific quest itself, and to the meaning of the concepts and measures involved, can hypotheses of specific relations be tested and substantiated, and the consequences of acting on the basis of belief in these be validly assessed. This is what Thomas Kuhn refers to when he discusses the prevailing "paradigm" which has overwhelmed and replaced competing schools or models ordering particular phenomena studied by scientists. Kuhn gives the Copernican and Einsteinian theories as examples of such paradigms in physics, and suggests that scientific progress in any field has never been possible until its practitioners have been freed from the necessity of continually questioning its basic theoretical assumptions, or its paradigms. It is apparent that sociology is still very much in this "pre-paradigm" stage of scientific development.

Kuhn (as did John Dewey before him) defines factual knowledge as a set of instruments enabling humankind to alter the physical and social environment, or the natural world of which our species is a part. It appears that no one who is involved in the development of such instruments could justifiably make the claim that this work is "value-free." The scientist is, at least as far as consequences for humanity are concerned, the moulder of the universe. And the sociologist, especially to the degree that the enterprise becomes scientific, will contribute to the shaping of social relations -- hopefully by more rational means and in more humanly satisfying directions than they are presently being shaped (by default) through the progress of the physical sciences alone.

In the course of the construction of these instruments, it is clear that objectivity in sociology, if it is understood as a matching up with some immutable, external, patterned reality or "normative order", is impossible. But it is impossible in the natural sciences as well. Does this mean that the scientific (or instrumental) approach to knowing is worthless, and that one person's fantasy is as good as another's? The very success of the physical sciences in extending our potential for controlling the surroundings (or for creating a technology capable of controlling us) provides the answer here. Human beings have proved that they can render the physical aspects of the dynamic, complex web of interrelationships that make up reality more intelligible by means of the scientific quest; there is little reason to despair of their being able eventually to do the same for the social aspects of that reality. However, it would be foolish not to recognize and to make allowance for the fact that the objectivity problem is much greater in sociology, and may well require the use of different procedures and techniques.

In the natural sciences, the relatively vast accumulation of strongly affirmed hypotheses and highly developed products of knowledge (technology) tends to serve the same purpose as the antecedently "real" fixed corpus of knowledge exterior to humankind that was assumed by traditional dualist philosophy. So the older notion of objectivity can continue to be applied in much of the "normal research" safely removed from the leading edge of knowledge. This is the process of "brick building" within the confines of an established paradigm. But such is not presently the case in sociology. Here we are all at the leading edge, or in Kuhn's terms, in the pre-paradigm or pre-scientific stage.

A second major reason why the research techniques of the natural sciences may not be suitable for sociology has to do with the knower's inevitable interference with the subject under study, which was discussed previously. It is so much less obvious and significant in the case of research in chemistry or physics, that to a large extent the consequences of this interference can be safely ignored. This is not so in the social studies. This applies even more to the subsequent effect of the new knowledge on the subject itself -- critical in the social sciences but often of slight concern for the natural scientist.

Thirdly, the tools available to the natural scientist are so much more refined than those developed thus far by the social scientist; therefore the prejudicial effect of the person manipulating the tools is bound to be much less significant for the former. By tools is meant not only physical techniques of measurement, but conceptual apparatus as well. Here, the basic problem of concept formation for the two types of study is again not different in nature, but immeasurably different in degree: different enough, surely, to warrant the use of distinctive research procedures. This difference is due, not only to the pre-paradigm state of our discipline, but to the state of the system of relations being conceptualized; to the rate of change in this system. Concepts can be defined in modern terms as descriptions of relations holding among variables. For the subject matter of the natural sciences these relations are relatively stable. The pattern of relations symbolized by "water," for instance, is stable enough to allow for a precise definition prevailing over time and continuing to be universally agreed upon. Even concepts such as "atom," "element," and "genes" -- although rapidly evolving in meaning -- are still widely agreed upon compared to those with which sociologists work.

Both because social relations change so rapidly, and because our instruments for assessing these are so partial and crude, very little consensus exists among sociologists as to the specific meanings of their conceptual tools. Because of this it is often impossible to communicate to others the exact processes by which one's conclusions have been reached. And this is most necessary if repeated tests of one's hypothesized relationships are to be possible, and if valid assessments of the changes one has wrought by experiment are to be made. For changes will be wrought by the published conclusions as well as by the very research activities of the sociologist, regardless of the degree of objectivity attained, or the scientific level of the discipline. Sociologists interfere with the existing pattern of social relations wherever they operate; their studies in some areas (as well as their failure to look at other areas of relationships) are irreversibly affecting the quality of human life on this planet. And to the extent that their work lacks objectivity (including awareness at every step of the effects of their own values) this interference is likely to be arbitrary and haphazard.

It appears, therefore, that the same discoveries that have caused objectivity to assume new meanings have made it both more difficult to ensure and more important to the knowledge-building endeavour. Knowers are inevitably part of that which they attempt to know; in fact it is their intelligence that is instrumental in constructing new beliefs about the good and true. And this process and the knowledge it produces helps to determine the subsequent course of social change. The researcher actively builds knowledge and values by altering relations among symbols or objects and then measuring and evaluating the consequences. Furthermore, the choice made by the individual researcher as to which specific aspects of the physical or social environment are to be revealed or illuminated or brought under control amounts to nothing less than a direct interference with the process of social change. And the too-often-unmeasured and unrecognized consequences of this interference (as well as that of the instruments for data gathering which have been created) go on and on, like the ripples on the disturbed surface of a pond.

The implications of all this for the sociologist are only too clear. The need for both objectivity and human concern in the carrying out of the knowledge- and value quest is considerably more pressing than if we were merely engaged in the process of uncovering an immutable pre-existing pattern; seen as a sort of exercise in opening cans all neatly arranged for us on shelves. We must face the fact that the old concept of objectivity is no longer applicable nor even remotely useful. All three aspects of our objectivity problem (as identified and struggled with over the past century by scholars such as Marx, Weber, Mannheim, and Dewey) can, however, be at least partly reconciled by the proposition put forward by Thomas Kuhn.

We can think of objectivity as being meaningful only in terms of a particular paradigm. Recognition and careful elaboration of this by researchers will endow their work with all the objectivity that it is possible to attain in the pre-paradigm stage of a discipline's development, and at the same time will make possible explicit and concise communication with colleagues and, thereby, replication and refutation. The degree of objectivity possible, and of subsequent scientific progress, increases considerably as conflict among various competing theoretical schools subsides and the fruitfulness and power of one dominant paradigm in each problem area is established. The hypotheses derived from such a paradigm, and verified by careful public testing, are all that we can ever hope to mean by "objective knowledge." But it is still a goal well worth striving for.

Reliance upon the obsolete idea of a "detached" type of objectivity in order to avoid facing up to the responsibilities attendant upon one's interference with social change can no longer be justified, nor even tolerated, in sociology. The particular paradigms from which we are operating provide us not only with our view of the way the world fits together, but our beliefs about what is good for humanity. By recognizing our paradigms for what they are, even though little discipline-consensus has yet been achieved, we are forced to acknowledge the need for the application of intelligence to our personal beliefs about the "good" as well as the "true." This means that such beliefs must continually be subjected to test in terms of their consequences for human relations. Furthermore, there is required a willingness to accept the responsibility for acting on the basis of these beliefs, with a full acceptance of the fact that as sociologists we are, by our every piece of writing and research, contributing irrevocably to the direction in which all humanity will move in its evolutionary process.


1. Theodore Roszak, "On Academic Delinquency" in Theodore Roszak, (ed.)., TheDissenting Academy (New York: Random House, 1967), 195.

2. John Seeley, "Social Science? Some Probative Problems," in Maurice Stein and Arthur Vidich, (eds.), Sociology on Trial (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1963), 65.

3. This claim that objectivity requires (or means) value neutrality is usually made in the name of Max Weber. But he did state that "an attitude of moral indifference has no connection with scientific objectivity." See Max Weber, "Objectivity in the Social Sciences" in Max Weber, The Methodology of the Social Sciences (New York: The Free Press, 1948), 60.

4. Karl Marx, Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr and Co., 1904).

5. Max Weber, op. cit., 1948.

6. See the following by Karl Mannheim: Man and Society in an Age of Reconstruction (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1948), Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge (I.ondon: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1952), and Essays on the Sociology of Culture (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1956).

7. In shrinking from the philosophical implications of relativity, Mannheim probably was a victim the prevalent misunderstandings about this that Hans Rechenbach discusses in his article, "The Philosophical Significance of the Theory of Relativity" in Herbert Feigl and May Brodbeck, (eds.), Readings in the Philosophy of Science (New York: Appleton-Century-Croft, 1953), 195-211. He points out that relativity means "relative to a certain definition system." It does not necessarily mean abandonment of the idea of "truth," but that truth can be formulated in various ways, according to the researcher's definitional system (or paradigm, in Kuhn's terms).

8. Barrington Moore, in his article, "Strategy in Social Science," in Maurice Stein and Arthur Vidich, op. cit., 69, maintains that value or moral convictions were central to Marx and that he saw no conflict in his position as both moralist and scientist. However, it remains true that one reason for the lack of conflict was the fact that he recognized no need to question the rightness of his value position -- in that it he viewed it as dictated by the dialectical "laws of history".

9. John Dewey, The Quest for Certainty, Gifford Lectures, 1929 (New York: Capricorn Books, 1960), 19.

10. Ibid., 304.

11. Herbert Feigl, "The Scientific Outlook: Naturalism and Humanism" in Herbert Feign and May Brodbeck, eds., op. cit., 11.

12. Karl Popper, The Poverty of Historicism (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), 59.

13. Myrdal develops this idea in Value and Social Theory: Essays on methodology (New York: Harper and Row, 1958) and again in the introductory section of his recent three-volume work, Asian Drama (New York: Random House, 1968).

14. W. K. Werkmeister, "Theory Construction and the Problem of Objectivity," in Llewellyn Gross, (ed.), Symposium on Sociological Theory (New York: Harper and Row, 1959), 503.

15. Harold E. Hatt, Cybernetics and the Image of Man (New York: Abingdon Press, 1968 ), 39.

16. A. D. Richie, Essays in Philosophy (New York: Longman's, Green and Co., 1948), 83. (Quoted in Hatt, ibid., 40.)

17 Ibid., 235.

18. Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (New York: Vintage Books, 1964), 425.

19. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago. The University of Chicago Press, 1962).

20. Ibid., 13.