Objectivity in social science research: There is no objectivity. Or is there?

By Lia Ni Aodha,

Many of you will probably have read about the recent spat between Ray Hilborn and Greenpeace. Greenpeace has cried that Hilborn’s work suffers from a conflict of interest, given the fact, that he receives a portion of his research funding from within the fishing industry, and has (allegedly) failed to be upfront about this. For some background information, it is worth considering that Hilborn’s work has highlighted that the doom and gloom media portrayal of global fisheries collapse is not an altogether accurate representation of the status of fish stocks, in all places (in fact, some are doing quite well). Greenpeace, in contrast, fairly consistently argue that overfishing is, in all areas, universal and at catastrophic levels.

Funnily enough (or perhaps not so), the current stage of my research has caused me to spend a lot of time pondering the notion of objectivity. I’ve done this from the perspective of my philosophical assumptions surrounding the role of the researcher within the research, but also in relation, to the subject matter of my thesis. Obviously, there is not a direct parallel between Greenpeace’s charge against Hilborn (given Hilborn, as a biologist, is rooted firmly within the natural sciences, and as such (for some) in an altogether different conception of objectivity,than say that of a social scientist), and some of my own musings. However, this debate did get me thinking. It seems reasonable to pose the question: Can we any longer premise that scientists (or if you prefer researchers), working on the big issues our generation face, can remain truly objective?

Firstly, in direct relation to the Hilborn-Greenpeace argument, the reality is that more and more funding for research comes from a variety of sources – which can, for sure, hold a very particular agenda, and may have all sorts of implications for knowledge production. However, like it or not, ‘Curiosity driven, economically disinterested research is becoming the exception rather than the rule…’ (1). While this may be the case, this need not ensure that research is no longer conducted in a rigorous manner, this is down to the researcher themselves.

Reflecting on my own research, however, obviously the spectrum of approaches to research, and the role of the researcher within the research, is altogether more diverse within the social sciences. This scale can range from the role of detached observer to fully engaged participant, insider versus outsider, and feeds directly into debates surrounding objectivity, and (or versus!) subjectivity. Indeed, having carefully considered this role – I’m not sure I ascribe to the notion that a researcher, within social science research, can ever be totally outside the research. Nor, that they should be.

The reality is that given that the subject matter under investigation is the social, the researcher is immediately in some manner situated, and so I don’t believe that the position of detached outside observer is realistic. This is particularly the case today as people are focused on big issues, that by virtue of their humanity they have a clear stake in. Furthermore, a number of advantages have been highlighted in relation to one’s subjectivity (particularly, if it is not positioned on some extreme spectrum). Such can drive the entire research process, from the topic pursued, to the focus on the subjectivities of those participating in the research – in this way such an approach can illuminate perspectives that are otherwise not heard or ignored. Indeed, it has been argued that in the era of post-normal science, narratives with explicit values are crucial, alongside facts (2)

That is not to say that I am open to the notion of biased, non-rigorous research – however, I do believe that accepting the notion of one’s place within the research, is a crucial first step in ensuring the quality of the research can be maintained. Furthermore, as a number of authors have highlighted, thorough research design and intellectual discipline can go a long way to circumventing any pitfalls associated with such a position (3, 4).

This final point brings us back to the original subject matter – funding sources as a conflict of interest, and the suggestion that the researcher plays a central role in ensuring that this does not become so. It seems fairly sensible to suggest that the adoption of similar steps, as highlighted above, can circumvent any such traps which such might lay – regardless of whether we are talking about the social or the natural sciences.

(For the record, I don’t really see any conflict of interest in Hilborn’s work, arising from the fact that he receives partial funding from within the fishing industry. He also receives funding, as he has highlighted, from a fairly wide range of other groups, including an array of environmental groups. There are numerous groups who have an interest in our oceans – none less so, I would argue, than those who rely on her resources for their livelihoods. It would look altogether more biased if the funding for Hilborn’s work came from one specific interest alone).

(Full disclosure – SAF21, and as such my own research, is funded by the EU).

The content of this blog does not reflect the official opinion of the SAF21 project or of European Union. Responsibility for the information and views expressed in this blog lies entirely with the author(s).
  1. Funtowicz, S., & Strand, R. (2007). Models of science and policy. Biosafety first: Holistic approaches to risk and uncertainty in genetic engineering and genetically modified organisms, 263-278.
  2. Allen, T. H. F., A. Tainter, J. C. Pires, and T. W. Hoekstra (2001), Dragnet ecology—“Just the facts, ma’am”: The privilege of science in a postmodern world, BioScience, 51, 475–485.
  3. Merton, R. K. (1972). Insiders and outsiders: A chapter in the sociology of knowledge. American journal of sociology, 9-47.
  4. Ratner, C. (2002, September). Subjectivity and objectivity in qualitative methodology. In Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung/Forum: Qualitative Social Research (Vol. 3, No. 3).
2017-07-10T15:54:46+00:00May 21st, 2016|

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