“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.

One thought on ““Objectivity” And Oppression In Academia

  1. I agree with you. People tend to forget that knowledge itself is political.

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