Objectivity has been a criterion of both science and its practice throughout the modern era. Its principal meaning is that the effect of the individual scientist has been removed from the findings and what is left can be considered both non-ideological and agendafree. The term is used as a global epistemological principle across all traditional science and as a specific property within tests and measurements.
Objectivity as an Epistemological Principle
As an epistemological principle, objectivity anchors one end of a continuum of claim that begins with the idiosyncratic. Idiosyncratic claim in its most extreme is claim that is true only in the presence of the individual making it. An example might be of a very persuasive speaker who under the force of rhetoric gathers followers at a rally. Once removed from the force of the moment, the truth of the matter disappears. Subjective claim is also located in the particular individual but the insight is exportable and moves from banal to resonant such as from a summer beach novel to an enduring work. Objective claim cannot originate in the individual but must originate in the inescapable properties of the object.
While approving of the principle, philosophers of science have wondered how it might come to be. For objective claim to be possible there has to be a direct and unbiased transmission of information from the object to the observer. For objective claim to be presented there has to be an unbiased method (symbolic form) for retransmitting the information to other observers. Most contemporary commentators reject the possibility of these two necessities, and, therefore, agree that objectivity at the individual level is either not attainable or not demonstrable.
Although the individual cannot be declared an unbiased observer, bias can be mitigated within a research community through a process of intersubjective cross-examination and critique that involves conventionalized protocols, independent replication, and critical review. The traditional view of the scientific method, for example, starts with the individual’s freedom and duty to pose falsifiable hypotheses that are then tested empirically, and presented in sufficient detail to any interested person for scrutiny and replication. This process represents a commitment by the scientific community to achieve propositions of the highest quality. Conventions – agreed upon rules – govern everything in this process, including the propositional structure of a hypothesis, the conditions of falsifiability, the character of a fair test and its empirical evidence, and the manner of its publication, from the terms of its acceptance to its presentational style. Compared to the physical sciences, replication and critical review in communication, as in many social sciences, are considerably less conventionalized. Authors are not obliged to make data and instruments available to others and routinely refuse requests. None of the mainline journals maintains a regular feature of published reviews. These may be perceived as threats to the objectivity of the discipline.
Objectivity and Truth
Objectivity does not guarantee the truth of the matter. A declaration of objectivity means that the intellectual community’s standards of quality have been met. Those standards, however, may not be adequate: they may be founded on false premises; they may be applied in an inappropriate matter; the enforcement of conventions may be haphazard; their practical enactment may be compromised. These are all human practices subject to human error. There is, however, no simple statement about what this possibility of error means. For the strict realist, who holds to an addressable, objective world about which true and false statements can be made, the community can fall into error but it will not remain in error. It is self-correcting. Any single proposition may be wrong, but, on the whole, science works in progressive ways to a better approximation of that reality.
The social constructionist cannot be so sanguine. Most of the variants of social constructionism would consider both a material and ideational reality as the subject of inquiry in the social sciences. The components of the ideational reality as the product of social processes cannot be objective. They are culturally produced and exist in the time and place of their constituting cultural practice. Consequently for social constructionists, at least some elements of what is true come with an expiration date. Time erodes knowledge; science cannot be linearly progressive as what is justified as true becomes false.
Relativists and many postmodernists reject the first premise of realism – that there is an addressable, objective reality that provides a self-corrective to claim. Knowledge and the declaration of the true are both social processes that are held in place through material practices and power relationships. The intersubjective critique is a high quality gloss for the rough and tumble politics of knowledge. The most that it will grant science is that it works, but its instrumentality is encased in political rather than veridical characteristics.
Practitioners of the interpretive turn that appeared throughout the social sciences in the early 1970s have a problematic relationship with objectivity and truth. Their epistemology is social constructionist, which leads them to reject notions of an independent reality that provides a corrective to erroneous claim. Further, the individual researcher is considered the instrument of analysis in a reprise of Max Weber’s verstehen or special understanding that humans have for human life. For the more radical of interpretivists, the comparison is not between the objective and the subjective but between the resonant and the idiosyncratic.
Interpretivists, social constructionists, relativists, and postmodernists, arguably, all conflate the true with the good, which is to say that claims about what is true are advanced politically rather than on some intrinsic character. In doing so they close the gap that David Hume struck between what is or is not and what ought or ought not to be, for in arguing that something is so they are forced to argue that it ought to be believed to be so. This belief in something is constitutive in a socially constructed, ideational world, leading to material consequences based on that constitution. In this formulation, objectivity is a rhetorical property rather than an epistemological principle.
Objectivity in Measurement and Testing
An objective method of measurement is one in which any one observer following the rules of measurement will assign the same values/qualities to the observed object as any other observer following those same rules. The premise is that the properties of the object will interact in a consistent way with the rules of measurement to produce the reported values. These values are necessarily a function both of the object properties and the rules of measurement: any belief that it is possible for the object to report its properties to observers in the absence of a measurement protocol would require a brute sense empiricism – an epistemological position that has been universally rejected by commentators.
The notion that the rules of measurement participate in the values reported can lead to the erroneous claim that those values are contaminated by the protocol. But consider measuring a board using a metric scale (millimeters), an imperial scale (inches), and a story pole (a pencil line on a stick). All three measurement protocols can give the exact same answer to the question of whether the board is long enough, although each will report different values.
Further, there is some belief that the bias of a protocol can be contained by using multiple protocols. This practice is often called triangulation and is an extension of the multiple-observers convention in that it produces multiple observations by using different methods. What has not been conventionalized, however, is the resolution of the differences that typically appear among the protocols. Determining what will be held as true will always be contentious.
Objectivity and Validity
Objective measurement does not guarantee valid measurement. Every measurement protocol is designed to return a value for every application. It is possible that the rules of measurement may auto-indicate a value in the absence of a property or even an object. Some commentators argue that attitude studies fall into this category. The rules may not interact with the properties of the object at all or in consistent ways.
It is also true that inference is a necessary part of any measurement, objective or not. Inference assigns meaningfulness to some measurement value. To say that 31 people checked the number 3 out of choices ranging from 1 to 5 has little value without the inference that the value of 3 represents a neutral attitude. If the source of the behavior is not an attitude but some other cognitive property, then the inference will be false. If the properties measured appear only in the presence of the rules of measurement, then the measurement will be true but the inference drawn from them will most likely be false.
In the end the validity of a measurement is always unknown. Consequently, a measurement (as well as a claim) can be objective and also false. In the absence of contrary evidence, however, we may act in some confidence that it is true. The irreducible possibility of error in measurement and testing, however, requires a skeptical stance even when acting in confidence.
Understanding Objectivity in Communication
Traditional science houses few interpretivists, social constructionists, relativists, or postmodernists, but they are well represented in the communication field. The result is that objectivity is a contested term across the domain of the discipline but within given areas is either assumed or ignored.
There is one part of the debate as it is commonly framed that can be quickly set aside: there is nothing about objective measurement that requires numbers; the requirements for objectivity are rules governing multiple observers who consequently generate the same observations given the same conditions. Numbers are simply a convenience of analysis. There is, consequently, no necessary impediment to objectivity in qualitative or interpretive studies at the level of observation. Interpretivists can establish rules of observation, and communication research is seeing an increasing conventionalization of participant-observation fieldwork.
Multiple observers can work the same observational domain using the same rules. The results are expected to differ, however, because the communicative practices that are the objects of observation are held to be contingent to the time, place, enactors, and observers of their origin. It is expected that conditions will not be the same across those contingencies.
That difference may be paradigmatic and potentially incommensurate, but it has little to do with objectivity. It is the rules of observation and their systematic application that establish the objectivity of the observations. The differences across observations that are expected to appear, given the interpretive paradigm, may simply be the facts of the case. The result is that no one has a unique claim to objectivity and no one is released from specifying systematic and reproducible rules of observation, if they choose to declare themselves scientists.
- Bostrom, R. N. (2003). Theories, data, and communication research. Communication Monographs, 70, 275 –294.
- Kant, I. (1977). Prolegomena to any future metaphysics (trans. J. W. Ellington). Indianapolis: Hackett. (Original work published 1783).
- Locke, J. (1975). Essay concerning human understanding. (ed. P. Nidditch). Oxford: Clarendon Press. (Original work published 1689).
- Quine, W. V. (1960). Word and object. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Rorty, R. (1991). Objectivity, relativism, and truth: Philosophical papers, vol. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Wright, C. (1987). Realism, meaning, and truth. Oxford: Blackwell.
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