What we think of as 'objective' research is unreliable and unavoidably biased, even when practised properly. 'Strong objectivity' provides a better understanding of the world, writes pioneer of feminist epistemology Sandra Harding.
Nobody wants biased research that produces inaccurate accounts of nature and social relations. We want reliable accounts on which to base public policies and our own practices. Moreover, this can seem to be a dangerous moment even to take up this question in light of the constant barrage of false claims and “science-bashing” that issues daily, as I write, from the U.S. president and from other authoritarian regimes around the globe.
Yet among many disadvantaged groups, objectivity has gotten a bad reputation in recent decades. Women, African Americans, indigenous peoples, other peoples of color, lesbian/gay/bi/trans peoples, and the disabled have pointed out that the dominant natural and social science accounts often have misrepresented their daily lives and their knowledge concerns in what the dominant groups claim are objective results of research. Consequently, public policy often disadvantages such marginalized groups. Such claims emerged from the new social justice movements of the 1960’s and 70’s and have continued with more recent complaints from anti-colonial groups in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and elsewhere around the globe.
Today, as the front pages of our newspapers have revealed, who catches COVID-19, and who dies from it, clearly indicate that in important respects, truly objective environmental and medical/health assumptions and practices have not been guiding public policy. COVID-19 is an equal opportunity virus, but the conditions of life for poor people ensure that they are more likely to catch it and have fewer resources to deal with it. Moreover, in the related economic crisis, who falls into poverty and who does not reveal similar faulty assumptions that shape economic policy.
All of these groups have pointed out that in different ways, their own lived experiences have often not been those of the dominant group of elite white male, heterosexual and “abled” natural and social scientists who have produced most of the facts that have guided public policy about our natural environments and our social relations. As most physicians now recognize, the bodies of members of these other groups are not in all respects exactly like the stereotypical model of the human as the idealized elite white man.
These groups want research that is more objective than the conventional supposedly universally valid research.
Women’s bodies are not immature or defective versions of men’s bodies, with simply a different reproductive system characterizing them, as the old, pre-1960’s accounts claimed. Even automobile designers finally got the message to create the possibility of adjusting the height and position of drivers’ seats so even small drivers, such as many white women and most people in some other ethnic groups, could see out of the front window and reach the gas or brake pedals at the same time.
Calls for greater objectivity
Such accommodations to servicing the needs of physically and socially diverse groups have produced economic, political, and educational revisions of our policy worlds and our daily experiences in them. These groups want research that is more objective than the conventional supposedly universally valid research that in fact was grounded only in dominant group experience. They don’t want “subjective” research, as their critics often claim. It is the dominant models of the human and their standards that have been only subjective, they counter. Rather, they want “stronger objectivity” that can more accurately chart all of our naturally and socially different lives in the world we all share.
Obviously some sciences are more liable to such charges than others. High-energy physics (particle physics) certainly seems reasonably resistant to such charges. Yet one can still ask questions about why it is that such a science is so highly funded by the U.S Department of Defense. Could this have something to do with U.S. military politics rather than only with the objective desire to understand “pure nature”? Why don’t sciences that could effectively prepare for a pandemic--one that on last Friday alone newly infected 99 thousand U.S. citizens and killed 1000-- receive equal federal funding?