“If you were an object, what would you be?”
This was the question posed to my seventeen year old sister at a job interview yesterday. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a classic. While likely trying to encourage the interviewee-come-victim to “think-outside-the-box”, it’s clear that they were digging around for the usual the metaphors and personifications that lend themselves to employabilty.
Regardless, it got me thinking: what would my answer be? A facetious one, probably. Because, it seems to me, that what such a supposed ‘blue-sky-thinking’ question inadvertently serves to do is to reinforce the pre-established concepts, such as that of object versus subject.
“If you were an object, what would you be?”
“Define object”, would be my response (Let’s face it, I probably wouldn’t get the job…)
Now I’ll take a moment to apologise for the ardent anthropologist in me who is writing this blog post. As I’ve learnt from my brief encounter with social anthropology, binaries, in this discipline, are seen to be the cardinal sin; nothing is black and white, but rather a strange shade of beige (or a rainbow if you’re one of the more hippy anthropologists – I’ve met a few).
Nonetheless, on a personal level, I always seem to return to the issue of the object-subject dichotomy and whether or not it is one which is ‘valid’, particularly in science. I touched upon it fleetingly in my undergraduate dissertation, and, in fact, it is a topic which somehow managed to worm its way into a dorm room in Stockholm one mid-summer evening as my roommate and I hotly debated objectivity in science…on our holiday (yes, we are nerds).
Anyway, what I want to do here is not engage in postmodern criticisms regarding the nature of object and subject in general – as my preamble misleadingly alludes to – but rather to discuss the use and misuse of the terms within science. Now this is a still a huge area, so I’ll do everyone a big favour and limit my rambling to the bits that I am hopefully more qualified to talk about.
So, according the common belief, science is objective. This is to say that science is free from bias; it exists without feelings and sentiments which are considered to impede its impartiality. Further to this, it is this objectivity, and its concomitant impartiality, which relates science to reality and to truth. Objectivity is considered an ideal in scientific inquiry: objective science equals ‘good’ science, and this leads us further towards ‘the truth’.
What am I saying? Is this common formula regarding that nature of science wrong? No. Ever the anthropologist, I believe that this relationship is, simply, infinitely more complicated that it seems.
Let’s take the maxim that objective science equals good science. We are taught in science 101 that scientific inquiry “needs to be a fair test”. It is ingrained in the minds of primary and secondary school science students that there is no room for subjectivity in scientific inquiry and the subjective science is bad science; that it moves us further away from science’s search for what is real and truthful. Subjectivity is considered to be indicative of sloppy-thinking, and not suitable science.
However, could it be the case that subjectivity is not a scientific sin, but rather a thing of huge potential for the purpose of uncovering ‘the truth’?
I’d like to illustrate this idea with examples from the field of animal behavioural studies. During field observations, individual animals are regularly assigned numbers: ‘Suzy’ the chimpanzee is reduced to ‘subject 202’, for example; a method designed to remove personal interest from an inquiry. Researchers are encouraged to censor their publications of any personal bias in order to retain their scientific credibility. Anecdotal narratives of, for example, a baboon acting protectively towards the researcher in the event of the arrival of a foreign flange, are saved for the personal memoirs of the primatologists.
However, surely by selectively excluding subjective observations of behaviour from scientific publications, we become further removed from the truth? This is the opinion of a number of animal behaviour scholars, including Donna Haraway and Amanda Rees, who voice the limits and impossibility of science’s objectivity in the field of primate behavioural research. Indeed, Amanda Rees vociferously laments what she considers to be the loss of knowledge when scientists refuse to acknowledge the complex personalities and vitalities of animals, instead choosing ‘objective’ science.
If subjective experiences and accounts can be so useful to certain areas of scientific inquiry, and can facilitate to such an extent in uncovering the truth, why has objectivity become a postmodern virtue, worshiped by much of the scientific community?
According to Lorraine Daston and Peter Gallison, this preoccupation with the objective can be traced back to the virtues of the Victorian era. In this historical period individual judgement was seen as suspect, unruly and in need of discipline; that is to say, the greatest obstacle on the path to truth and knowledge was onself. This obsession with discipline in the Enlightenment led to a new kind of policing manifested as scientific-scrutiny. Scientists became tasked with sifting out traces of subjectivity and holding others up for dismissal from the scientific community upon the undertaking of such transgression.
Could it be the case, then, that the modern day obsession with objectivity in science is simply the unquestioned outgrowth a moralised vision rooted in a particular historical period? Personally, I think we should highly consider this. To me, it is not unreasonable to consider objectivity to simply be a set of practices grown out of the subjective, highly-polarized and self-interested visions of 19th century society.
Okay so where do we stand? Yet another fact I gleaned from my stint with social anthropology is that conclusions are hard to come by. And if one were to fortunate enough to come across a conclusion, it is probably either vague or contentious…
Following suit, then, let’s say this. Objectivity is science is an ideal, and we should certainly question both its attainability and its value in certain areas of scientific practice. Those who herald objectivity and so-called objective practice in the sciences should be mindful of worshiping a false god and consider, for a moment, that that which we prize above all else in our ‘quest for truth’ might in fact be the epistemic virtue of another time and another place.
In short, objectivity is beige.
For further information on this topic I recommend:
Daston, L. and Galison, P. (2007). Objectivity. New York: Zone Books.
Haraway, D J. (1989). Primate Visions. Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science. New York: Routledge.
Haraway, D J. (2008). When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Rees, A. (2001). Anthropomorphism, anthropocentrism and anecdote: primatologists on primatology. Science, Technology and Human Values. 26: 227-247
Rees, A. (2007). Reflections on the field: primatology, popular science and the politics of personhood. Social Studies of Science. 37: 881-907