SAHWA Views: Objectivity and Subjectivity in Qualitative Methods

The debate about objectivity and subjectivity is a central point in social sciences. Among researchers, some think that objectivity is related with quantitative methods while subjectivity remains in qualitative methods. I’d like to remark upon some points about the possibility of objective knowledge in qualitative methods.

[Photo ©:Isaac Mao, 真相框架 Framework of Truth]

First, focusing on the epistemological level, a dichotomist viewforgets that the positivist principle, mainly associated with qualitative methods, is blurred. Objectivity and subjectivity are not exclusively related with techniques, this is a perpetual problem in social sciences research, independent of the data collection techniques. As we can observe when the researcher is designing a questionnaire, subjectivity is involved in this task when the researchers implement or discard some topics or questions according to the researcher’s position in the social discursive camp. In consequence a survey could be threatened as a subjective method. Subsequently, it can be difficult to define how subjectivity is related to ethnographic techniques and objectivity with surveys. The objectivity-subjectivity problem is related to the main aim of social sciences: to know the point of view of agents about one topic or problem and how to achieve this objective. In this sense, not always measurable methods certify the objectivity of research. ’Truth’ especially in social matters, depends of theoretical positions. In qualitative methods – mixing surveys and ethnographic fieldwork – a controversy appears related to how to construct adequate techniques “to know” or “to understand” the agent’s point of view.


Secondly, as social sciences recognise the centrality of the agent, the techniques of data collection may take into account the individual without converting them into an object; we cannot forget that he or she is a subject with emotions, feelings, expectations and needs. In addition, we cannot forget that individual experiences are representative of social groups’ experiences and “actor” or “agent” is not exactly equal to individual. In consequence, we can implement objective observation methods which do not depend on the researcher or on the agent to decrease subjectivity at all stages of research: conceptual, fieldwork and analysis. Therefore, it is important to implement a protocol about qualitative methods to decrease uniqueness and dissimilarity in fieldwork, ethnographics or surveys. This protocol permits one key point: generalisation. In this sense, to elaborate a meta-analysis method including survey and ethnographic fieldwork would act as a strategy to achieve objectivity. This method habilitates us for validation. Therefore, it includes triangulation and cross-checking of results.


Consequently, the qualitative investigations following the actor go beyond simply the author constructing his or her own story. Every social researcher tries to take into account the social constraints imposed by the context of the agent and, at same time, the researchers are constrained by their position in the social structure. Subjective processes, social relations, and artefacts (including research instruments and methods) enable researchers to objectively comprehend social phenomena. This position opposes the postmodernist contention that this kind of subjective process, social relation and artefact interferes with objectivity. To achieve this, a hermeneutic procedure for interpreting narratives, practices, expectations and youth attitudes allows the researcher to comprehend the meanings that are expressed by young people. In terms of terminology, it can be better to define individual or collective actors as agents due to this term’s relation to the capability of every individual or social group to decide, change and construct its social reality (Giddens).


Thirdly, a short thought about the methodological approach or level of evidence. The qualitative method is not only driven by the constructivist paradigm. In this sense, we consider the phenomenological approach relevant in our investigation. As noted by Schutz, “the buildings used by the social scientist are, therefore, so to speak, constructs of the second degree, namely constructs of the constructs made by the actors in society itself, actors whose behaviour the researcher observes and tries to explain according to the procedural rules of his science" (Schutz, 1974a: 37-38). This remark poses the question of what we can do with data collection. If any ethnographic research result is an interpretation, this is a translation, so our goal is to produce a hermeneutic approximation. This means constructing a phenomenology of perceptions and self-perceptions, representations and agencies. This implies that all general theoretical frameworks of social sciences are, in a sense, a way of life in themselves, whose concepts have to be mastered as a way of practical activity, generating specific types of descriptions. This is a double hermeneutics. It supposes a degree of considerable complexity, since your connection is not merely unique: there is a continual 'slippage' of concepts built into sociology. This epistemological perspective facilitates the understanding of human behaviour from the frame of reference of the agent. This knowledge is rooted in phenomenologism and verstehen (understanding), hermeneutic understanding, and can be located at a number of different levels. First, the intuitive levels, understanding intuitively grasps the inherent capacity personal meanings of a social context. Secondly, knowledge through experience. Finally, knowledge through personal, empathic or sympathetic identification. In consequence, it is necessary to distinguish between tacit and explicit knowledge to clarify. Tacit knowledge is personal and subjective knowledge based on direct experience with the social or non-social environment; public knowledge is explicit or verbally coded information that is transmitted through a symbolic mediation. A distinction between tacit and explicit knowledge must be added between existing contingently-acquired knowledge and knowledge gained through rules. As a result, Max Weber’s verstehen is the application of tacit knowledge to all significant and intentional actions. In this sense, it is a subset of empathy with special features. However, following Weber, we can distinguish between: understanding or comprehending the meaning of an action; understanding the reason or purpose of an action; and the identification of the specific meaning of a particular action.


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