Before I can start throwing down any research, I have to be honest with myself and any potential reader about why I’m doing what I’m doing. You see, I have been a student for seventeen out of the twenty one years I have been alive. Those seventeen years have been interesting. They have have been filled with days and weeks and months of classes where smart people (teachers) told non-smart people (students) the “truth” about the world. Don’t get me wrong, I learned many valuable things over the course of those 17 years. I learned how to multiply fractions, identify misplaced modifiers, successfully raise a tank of zebrafish,
type 78 words per minute, and write a 100% BSed five-paragraph theme. I learned how to win an argument with my teacher about what Shakespeare actually meant when he wrote that Caesar preferred to surround himself with fat men . News flash: he did not just have a particular fetish for fat men, no matter how many years Ms. Doore has been teaching advanced junior English.
Point is, I did gain life skills. What I also gained was a serious distaste for hierarchical education. As I moved on to higher (and more expensive) education, it became absolutely crucial for me to think critically about my relationship to the subjects of my research. I developed a healthy skepticism and then some considerable rage-against-the-machine-type feelings toward notions of objectivity and generalizability. Consequently, like any good radical private school scholarship white queer kid with a chip on their shoulder–I gravitated toward feminist research. Here’s where it gets academic–I give you the shortened version (can you believe it?) of my full feelings on objectivity.
The process of social research is riddled with questions about relationships, value, and power. Many sociologists and researchers from various other fields rely on a positivist approach, gathering facts at a certain point in time to represent the experience and reality of a group of people (Reinharz and Davidman 15). This particular approach leans heavily on notions of objectivity, generalizability, replicability, and impersonalness, creating a distance between the researcher and the subject so as to prevent a bias in the data collected (Brayton). At its inception, feminism troubled this methodology by looking critically at that distance created. As members of a marginalized group historically affected by a male bias in both qualitative and quantitative research (Brayton), feminists began asking: as an academic, is it possible to deliver an unbiased account of another’s experience, left untouched by one’s own social reality and identity? Feminist researchers understand the research process to be relational—drawing connections between relationships and values. Rather than denying or avoiding the ties between researcher and subject, feminist methodology seeks to identify and examine those ties. As Kim England writes, “ The intersubjective nature of social life means that the researcher and the people being researched have shared meanings and we should seek methods that develop this advantage” (82).
Feminist research requires a close examination of the self as researcher (England 82-83). This introspective methodology is based in two ideas: reflexivity and positionality. Reflexivity can be broadly defined as a self-conscious analysis of the researcher’s role in the research process itself—not only in terms of execution, but also construction and conceptualization. A large part of practicing reflexivity is positionality, or situating the researcher within a particular social reality in terms of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, age, ability status, ethnicity, or any number of contributors to social location (Nagar and Geiger 11). Gergen and Gergen stress the importance of considering the place of the research within one’s own life, both on individual and political levels (Gergen and Gergen 81). A responsible researcher must be prepared to ask themself what sorts of borders are being crossed, in whose interest, and whether there is value in blurring the line between self- reflection and social observation. Practicing reflexivity cannot change one’s relationship to the subjects of the study, nor can it erase the power imbalance that accompanies one’s occupation as a student or academic. Reflexivity does nothing to change the realities of folks who are marginalized, discriminated against, abused, pressured, or forgotten. In point of fact, addressing one’s social position and identity as a researcher within written work accomplishes but one single, albeit crucial, task: to reassure the reader and the subject that the researcher is aware of their relationship to the research and has spent the time and effort needed to negotiate power dynamics created by identity and privilege. With that said, reflexivity is not just a disclaimer to be added at the beginning or the end of the research process—it is a constant effort to reevaluate one’s relationship to the subject and should extend far beyond the start and finish lines of any project.
My perspective as a young, white, English-speaking, American, middle-class, able-bodied, genderqueer person who was socialized as a woman affects the way I approach and analyze literature. My commitment to activism also influences my perspective and gives direction to my research. Negotiating my own relationship to gender, social media, and the binary that has played such a large in part in determining my life experiences and shaping my identity allows me to look at my sources with a critical eye, understanding that each author offers something unique based on their own social reality.
So, to make a long story even longer, I don’t think it’s possible to be objective in social research. Frankly, I don’t believe that striving toward objectivity is necessary or particularly valuable. Acknowledge your privilege, acknowledge your experience, acknowledge your goals, self interested or not. Constantly question your position and challenge your personal assumptions. If you consider your research to be activism–which I do–check out this post I wrote on my ten commandments of activism. Then get to work.
Brayton, Jennifer. “What Makes Feminist Research Feminist? The Structure of Feminist Research within the Social Sciences.” What Makes Feminist Research Feminist. 1997. Web. 20 Mar. 2012. <http://www.unb.ca/par-l/win/feminmethod.htm>.
Gergen, Mary M. “From Theory to Reflexivity in Research Practice.” Method and Reflexivity: Knowing as Systemic Social Construction. By Kenneth J. Gergen. London: Sage, 1991. 76-95. Print.
Gieger, Susan. “Reflexivity and Positionality in Feminist Fieldwork Revisited.” Politics and Practice in Economic Geography. By Nicha Nagar. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2007. Print.
Kim, England. “Getting Personal: Reflexivity, Positionality, and Feminist Research.” The Professional Geographer 46.1 (1994): 80-89. Print.
Reinharz, Shulamit, and Lynn Davidman. Feminist Methods in Social Research. New York: Oxford UP, 1992. Print.