Estimated reading time: 2 minutes, 16 seconds

Researcher Subjectivity, Research Paradigms, and Postmodern Sensibilities

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes, 16 seconds

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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16 thoughts on “Researcher Subjectivity, Research Paradigms, and Postmodern Sensibilities

    1. Amazing to be thinking along similar lines even when we’re not overtly hyperconnecting like we sometimes do šŸ˜‰

  1. Hi Maha,

    This discussion is especially bogged down interminological cross talk. To say that there is “no objective reality” says what reality is not, but it does not say what reality is. To me it suggests that there is no reality, and this is absurd.

    When you say, “no objective reality in social research” you provide a context. OK, so social reality is socially constructed. But this does not mean that it is not “real”. So, what is reality?

    Next stop, the allegory of the cave.

    I could not understand this story.

    Philosophical speculation can be interesting or annoying, depending on your temperament, your mood, your disposition. Like chess, this is something of an acquired taste. We can live with it or without it, and most of the human race lives without it.

    But the point about objective reality is important in the world and so it should be brought into discussions that people care about. For examples, this thing colors the way Muslims see religion and the law, and this dialog is at the center of many of the forces that are wreaking havoc on the Muslim world today.

    We do not stone adulterers and we do not cut off the hands of thieves. Most of us do not do these things today because the Shariah is expressed within a socially constructed human context – our unique, constructed reality. Any other explanation must either collapse into incoherence or refer to direct rejection of the law.

    Or, have I completely missed the point here?

    Thanks for the table. It’s quite useful.

    1. Hi Mark, i love your example, and it fits. It is also fitting to take that approach when thinking about why certain things made sense in other sociohistorical contexts, and why it does not in ours.
      To talk about lack of “objective” social reality is to defer to some kind of “subjective” reality constructed socially or even individually (tho as individuals our perceptions are socially-influenced at least). What i meant to highlight in non-philosophical language is to say that i resent other people telling me what my own objective reality is and dismissing my own subjective reality that differs from theirs. By admitting my own subjectivity, i keep space for others to interpret otherwise for THEMSELVES but not on my behalf. It has postcolonial undertones, which i discovered while writing the blogpost and my response to you… I wonder…

  2. The paradox is things need to be able to change. Regardless of whether they work or not adaptation and uniqueness emerge in renewal or rot. If our values or judgements are trained to accept crap as reality, it will appear to us.

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