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“Objectivity” And Oppression In Academia

@grollman: Objectivity is a myth afforded to the privileged. (Source: Twitter)

@grollman: Objectivity is a myth afforded to the privileged. (Source: Twitter)

Objectivity — a scholar’s supposed ability to remain impartial about the subjects she studies — is a myth. Like the myths of meritocracy and color-blindness, objectivity sounds good in theory, but it is impossible to use it in practice. Simply put, researchers are not immune to bias. While in many instances such bias can be dangerous, bias is not bad, per se.

Objectivity Precludes Certain Areas Of Inquiry

I am a sociologist in training, perspective, and practice. (Un)fortunately, in the process of recovering from the trauma of my graduate training, my consciousness about my discipline has grown, as well. It recently hit me that it would be more accurate to say that my degree is in “white sociology” or “Eurocentric sociology,” not sociology. The training I received pushed objective research as the only true form of research. But, being detached was not enough; it was not enough to naively attempt to leave my anti-racist politics and Black racial identity at home when I left for school.

Rather, objectivity also implied that research on race — more specifically, research that made central the lives of Black people — was inferior to more mainstream areas. I was told that a true sociologist takes on a subfield — typically a social institution like education or medicine — and, in the process, she might just happen to focus on a particular (marginalized) population. But, no one should be a sociologist of race, and certainly not an anti-racist sociologist. Sadly, for me, “just happens to study [X population]” did not extend to LGBTQ people. In my case, to be objective meant to move away from studying the very community I went to grad school to study. It has taken a couple of years post-grad school to finally return to topics I wanted to pursue back in 2007.

As a powerful and seductive ideology, objectivity serves as a tool for (privileged) gatekeepers of the discipline to devalue research on oppression and oppressed communities. To be objective, one cannot be too eager to study trans people, or Latino fathers, or women with disabilities. To study these populations whom the academy finds suspect or, at worse, unimportant, is to compromise one’s credibility as a true researcher.

Objectivity Is A Privilege

Early in grad school, a fellow student criticized my interest in the intersections among racism, heterosexism, sexism, and classism as “narrow.” In the years since, others have implied or explicitly said that my research constitutes “me-search.” That is, my scholarship is suspect because I am a fat Black queer non-binary sociologist who does research on multiply disadvantaged individuals (e.g., queer people of color), trans people, queer people, people of color, and fat people. In my case, this suspicion is heightened because my anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-cissexist, and anti-heterosexist activism is visible and publicly accessible. Mind you, my research is quantitative, rarely includes “I” or other first person references, speaks to mainstream sociology audiences, is published in mainstream sociology journals, and probably appeases the demand of objective research. My sins, however, are being fat Black queer and non-binary, and caring about the communities that I study.

My white cisgender heterosexual “normal weight” men colleagues are not suspected of bias. They are seen as the gold standard of objectivity. Their interest in topics that seem most interesting to other white dudes is somehow devoid of the influence of their social location. Their uncritical or, on rare occasion, critical perspective on a topic is seen as expertise, not bias. Even when these privileged scholars study marginal topics and/or marginalized communities, their work is taken seriously and remains unquestioned. I have yet to see a privileged scholar accused of having “narrow” interests or doing “me-search.” That is because objectivity serves as a device to police, devalue, and exclude the research of marginalized scholars.

I believe that the privilege of objectivity also includes the freedom from any sense of obligation to do work that matters, to do work that will liberate one’s people. “One could not be a calm, cool, and detached scientist while Negroes were lynched, murdered and starved,” DuBois remarked in his 1940 autobiography, Dusk of Dawn. Like DuBois, I wrestle so frequently with feeling that my publications that lie behind paywalls, only to be read by a handful of people in my subfield, are a complete waste of time while Black trans and cis people are being murdered by the dozens. Our privileged colleagues are not faced with the urgency of death, oppression, violence, invisibility, illness, and poverty of their people, so I can only imagine how much easier it is for them to (pretend to?) be objective, detached, and removed – experts on problems of the world, not of or in them.

Objectivity Perpetuates The Erasure Of Marginalized Scholars

Though my grad school coursework included 3 semesters of professional seminars, I have subsequently found it is neither enough professional development nor relevant to the primary concerns of many marginalized scholars. Instead of talking about how to select a qualifying exam area, I would have benefited from a reflexive discussion about the myth of objectivity in our discipline. Perhaps a less critical, and thus more palpable, topic would be “debates in the profession.” Indeed, whether objectivity exists and — to the extent that it exists — whether it is a good thing has been debated from the very start of the discipline of sociology. So, too, is whether sociologists should concern themselves exclusively with empiricism or also with making a difference in the world, or at least one’s communities.

To further raise my consciousness about my profession, I have started reading pieces by respected sociologists that have long been raising the concerns I have been struggling with privately. For example, Dr. Joe Feagin devoted his American Sociological Association presidential address (2001) to “Social Justice and Sociology.” Feagin raised a point that floored me. The rise of objective research by white men sociologists coincided with the erasure of the work and contributions of sociologists like Anna Julia Cooper, W. E. B. DuBois, Jane Addams — women and people of color in the discipline. Due to racist and sexist discrimination, these scholars’ work was already devalued; but, the shift toward “value-free” sociology further undermined their contributions in the discipline. Recovering their work, which in objective terms is simply a matter of good science, is an inherently anti-racist and feminist act.

Each instance of embracing objectivity, then, reinforces the erasure of women scholars and scholars of color. Each time I have taught the obligatory theory section in my introductory sociology courses, focusing on “the big three” — Weber, Marx, and Durkheim — I have been complicit in the erasure of W.E.B. DuBois, Harriet Martineau, and Patricia Hill Collins, and others who are not dead white men. The professor of my grad school theory course is complicit, too, by excluding any discussion of critical race theory, Black feminist theory, or queer theory; we focused, instead, on “classical” sociological theory. Each time I unquestioningly cited the (W. I.) Thomas theorem — what people perceive to be real is real in its consequences — I was complicit in the erasure of Dorothy Swaine Thomas, who was a co-author on the text from which this theorem comes.

To question whose perspective and scholarship is respected as central to the discipline would be suspected as activism; and, it requires additional work to learn and advance the perspectives and scholarship of marginalized scholars that one was denied in one’s own training. But, to consume and teach classical and mainstream sociological material without question is to reinforce the racist and sexist status quo.

I conclude by asking that scholars be brave enough to reject the myth of objectivity, and be willing to own subjective and scholar-activist work. But, a revolution of sorts in academe is necessary for this to happen. We must stop celebrating and so fiercely defending “objectivity” in graduate training, in publications, in grants, and in tenure and promotion. We do society and ourselves a disservice by standing on the political sidelines, complicit in our own irrelevance.

Objectivity Doesn’t Exist (And That’s A Good Thing)

Source: Steve Jurvetson

Source: Steve Jurvetson

Many scholars have long criticized the notion that research, in any capacity, can be “objective” — free the personal biases of the researcher, and reflecting universal Truth.  So, I will not take the time to review the argument(s) that research cannot and never will be objective.  Instead, I would like to reflect on the benefits that come from the inherently subjective nature of research — at least in my own experience.  While the “how” of the research process — how research was carried out — cannot be separated from the humanness of the researcher, I am more interested here in the “why” (why it was carried out and in that way).

Researchers Are Human

In much of my graduate training, and even at times now as a professor, I have agonized over concessions I feel forced to make in order to be successful.  I have sometimes relinquished authenticity in order to appeal to the mainstream of my field(s).  In other words, knowingly (or unknowingly), I have sometimes acted in a way that would keep me from standing out from the crowd.  I am already marginalized in academia and society in general; I cannot totally shake the feeling that I must “fit in” somewhere.

Fortunately, I have been moving in the direction of accepting my uniqueness.  Statistically speaking, I am a unicorn.*  There are few people in the US — the world even — like me.  And, my unique social location informs a unique perspective on the world.  I do myself a disservice by working against my uniqueness.  I do science a disservice by withholding a perspective that may challenge conventional and mainstream research.  And, I do my students a disservice by advancing the same perspective they might find in every other course.

In embracing my unicorn-ness, albeit unevenly throughout my career, two unique lines of research were born.  In one, which I started early in my career, I attend to sexual orientation as an important social status — one that likely shapes an individuals’ worldviews.  There is good work that looks at the sexual, romantic, and familial lives of sexual minorities, and other work examines their exposure to homophobic and biphobic discrimination.  But, these approaches have tended to focus at the surface level of this groups’ marginalization — what makes them unique (to be frank: sex and relationships) and the consequences of being stigmatized.  It is my hope to highlight how else this status shapes our lives.

In the other line of research, I have been more intentional in embracing my inner unicorn.  I examine exposure to more than one form of discrimination (e.g., Black women’s experiences of race and gender discrimination), and the impact it has on health.  In hundreds of studies on self-reported discrimination and health, I saw few that acknowledged that some individuals, namely those who are marginalized in multiple ways, face more than one form of discrimination.  I have been pushing greater attention to the intersection among systems of oppression (intersectionality) in this line of research.  But, as the intersectional theoretical framework has implicitly favored qualitative approaches over quantitative approaches, I now find myself pushing back on intersectionality to take seriously the quantifiable aspects of life at the various intersections.  (This comes after feeling I should apologize to intersectionality scholars for doing it “wrong.”)

Speaking of intersectionality scholars, three come to mind who, in their own ways, embraced their unique perspective.  Two, obviously, are the foremothers of the intersectionality perspective: Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw (the legal scholar who originally created the theoretical framework) and Patricia Hill Collins (the Black feminist sociologist who elaborated and further popularized it).  In her latest book, On Intellectual Activism, Dr. Collins discusses why she advanced Black Feminist Thought, including intersectionality — gaps she saw in how other scholars were examining the lives of people of color and women (as distinct, non-overlapping groups) among other reasons.  Another researcher who has embraced her unique perspective and social location is sociologist Mignon Moore, who has 1) pushed intersectionality scholars to bring sexuality (back) into such work and 2) challenged prior work on lesbian couples and families that failed to look specifically at Black women.

Imagine if these scholars decided not to “go against the grain,” did not dare to advance scholarship that actually reflected their lives and communities.  Would intersectionality be an increasingly popular theoretical framework in the social sciences?  With no hope of studying their often invisible communities, would marginalized students decide against training in traditional fields like sociology, law, psychology, etc.?  Or, would they even consider graduate training or an academic career?  By honing one’s own unique perspective, and inspiring new scholars to hone their own, we advance science to reflect diverse viewpoints and approaches, and challenge existing ones that may be limited or even one-sided.

Personal Motivations For Research

No matter the perspective you advance in your research, another important component of our subjectivity as researchers is why we study what we study.  Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega recently reflected on the role of emotions in his (and other scholars’) research.  Though his work might be classified as positivistic in his approach, generally keeping focus away from him as the researcher, he embraces his personal motivations that influence what he studies and why:

It’s no secret to anyone that I have publicly declared my own research position and what drives and fires my research focus: I strive to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor. I want to see poverty alleviated and, if possible, eradicated. I want to address global inequalities and inequities. My research is driven by an intense desire to increase access to proper sanitation. Water poverty pains me and I want to help reduce it. Informal waste recyclers’ frequently face inhumane working conditions, thus making them vulnerable populations. I am interested in empowering the disenfranchised, and thus I strongly believe that my research benefits from the raw emotions that I feel whenever I am faced with, for example, the realities of poor communities with little access to water.

I suspect most researchers are influenced, to some degree, by their personal interests and values — at least in choosing what to study.  Women are overrepresented in research on gender and sexism.  The majority of scholars who study race, ethnicity, and racism are people of color.  I have heard those who have either suffered from mental illness or had relatives who did are drawn to psychology and psychiatry.  Even aside from what some have called “me-search,” I suspect curiosity — some mystery from one’s childhood that propels a desire to study it deeply — drives other researchers’ work.  Does anyone study something they do not care about at all?

I would argue that one’s passion for a particular topic still informs later aspects of the research process — not just in choosing what to study.  For example, a researcher may be disappointed to yield a “null finding,” that something that concerns them was not found in their analyses.  Of course, a good researcher would not intentionally manipulate their data or analyses in order to create a desired outcome.  (And, a good researcher would already exhaust all alternative measures and analyses.)  But, failing to find something you expect to find (either from personal experience or prior research) may push you to look a little deeper, to think more creatively about your analyses.  If one found that Black Americans fared better than whites on some health outcome, one might double-check their data and analyses because so much prior work suggests otherwise; if that finding truly holds beyond thorough examination of alternative approaches, a researcher might pursue additional projects to find what explains this odd finding in hopes of eliminating racial disparities in health.  A researcher who is not personally invested in what she studies might accept her results as is; she might not feel compelled to further unravel mysterious or provocative findings.

And, personal values and passions may influence what comes after our research is published.  To date, publishing in peer-reviewed journals that are locked behind paywalls remains the norm for much of academia.  There is little institutional reward (possibly even informal sanctioning) for making one’s scholarship accessible beyond paywalls and the classroom.  But, some scholars do take the time to propel their work beyond these boundaries.

There are numerous terms for such public scholarly efforts (e.g., public intellectualism, public sociology), though Dr. Collins has the best articulation of such work in On Intellectual Activism “speaking truth to power” and “speaking truth to the people.”  In her own career, she has balanced the two strategies of intellectual activism — advancing knowledge through theoretical and empirical work, and advancing knowledge beyond the Ivory Tower.  I see what one does post-publication as either the simple advancement of one’s career (“publish or perish”) or the advancement of a community or society (or both).

Top 3 Reasons Students go to Grad School

Top 3 Reasons Students go to Grad School, by Race/Ethnicity

Embrace Your Inner Unicorn

To be clear, agreed-upon standards of careful, thoughtful, and rigorous theorizing and empiricism is a must.  But, the pressure to maintain the same frameworks or perspectives considered traditional or mainstream in one’s field likely hinder the development of new ways of thinking, maybe even new ways of doing research.  It is a shame, in my opinion, that critical, radical, novel, and cutting-edge scholarship is too often discouraged, not supported, not mentored, not funded, not published, or even professionally punished.

Can we stop pretending objectivity exists?  Can we stop pretending we, as researchers, are soulless, experienceless, identityless, valueless automatons?  Conformity is overrated.  And, I would argue that it is bad for science and education.  Please, rather than suppressing who we are as humans, let’s embrace our unique perspective and experiences — the very things that likely propelled us into academia in the first place.   Since many marginalized students do not even see themselves reflected in their training — lack of diversity among faculty, narrow perspectives advanced in courses — we owe it to future generations to push out the boundaries of science and education.  Hell, we’re always already dismissed as “biased” anyhow!

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NOTES

* LGBT-identified individuals comprise of 3-4% of the US adult population, half or slightly less than half are men, and one-third of LGBT people are of color.  We’re already below 1% of the population here.  Narrow that to multiracial gay men.  And, add the layer of education, that 1% of the population receives PhDs.  Like I said — I’m a frickin’ unicorn.