Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Researcher Subjectivity, Research Paradigms, and Postmodern Sensibilities


I was having a conversation with a colleague at work, about subjectivity, and we had what I considered a disagreement but she considered a differently-phrased agreement. I’m writing here to explain the difference.

She was talking about trying to be objective about something.
I said, there is no such thing as being objective, the key is to make the researcher’s subjectivity/bias explicit.
She said, we’re saying the same thing.

I beg to differ.

She comes from more of a postpositivist paradigm, which I understand (it’s interpreted differently in different venues) to mean she recognizes that subjectivity exists because we are all human; however, she feels there is an objective reality out there, to which we aspire, and that our subjectivity is something that is a barrier or obstacle we need to overcome in order to try to approximate objectivity. (i may be completely wrong in how I am interpreting her, but definitely this conversation was going towards that direction).

I come from an interpretive/critical paradigm, and a postmodern sensibility, where subjectivity is seen as the reality, that there is no objective reality in social research, and that we need to embrace the subjectivity and bring it forward, not to try to overcome it to reach some ideal objectivity.

The issue I have discussed before in relation to critical (pr praxis-oriented) research approaches is that they sometimes have an external-objectivist ontology (i.e. believe there is an objective reality outside our subjective human experiences) and sometimes an internal-idealist ontology (according to Sparkes 1992 – all refs in my thesis accessible here). There are some (like Lather) who believe in a priori theory-building in praxis-oriented research, while others like Carr and Kemmis use grounded theory approaches. Some emancipatory research is participatory, but not all. Some participatory research is emancipatory, but not all.

It’s interesting… I am in the process of writing something outside my blog about how the definition of “social justice” is contextual. It’s also absolutely my view that the emancipatory aspect of critical research is contextual. My postcolonial self absolutely resents critical research that imposes the researcher’s theories on other people. It’s difficult to avoid, so I am not saying I don’t do it myself. I’m just saying it’s something to be careful of. I’ve probably said it many times before, so I won’t repeat.

But here is a diagram that others might find useful, from p. 107 of my thesis, on judging quality in qualitative research. It is an adaptation of Creswell and Miller’s table, and as such I think copyright-wise, not a problem to use on my blog (it might be, but it,s not rocket science so I’m publishing it anyway – my entire thesis is CC-BY-NC-ND anyway. I’ll be back later.




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