Saturday, 10 February 2007

Subjectivity and Objectivity: an Objective Inquiry, D C Philips, 1989, reader Vol 1, p57

The Best We Can Do - By Consensus

Denis C Philips objected to Elliot W Eisner’s rejection of objectivity; that all forms of representation are partial. Indeed the title is suggestive that an inquiry can be objective. Philips sees attacks on objectivity in educational research methods as undermining the value of qualitative research. He repudiates doubts about qualitative research in principle unable to be objective research as unreasonable.

Philips runs an ideographic trace on the origins of the intellectual attack on objectivity, dealing directly with the general acceptance that there is no certain foundation for all knowledge (foundationalism) – all knowledge is tentative – by reminding us that does not mean there is no such thing as objective truth. In my words, just because one does not know how one got to a place, does not mean that one is not in that place.

Philips sees objective inquiry as a label suggesting procedural propriety but not a guarantee that results have particular certainty. The truth is “out there” and neither a subjective nor an objective methodological research procedure is guaranteed to capture it. But it might. Thus qualitative research is a valid basis for pursing the truth by objective inquiry or subjective inquiry.

Philips admits that data is measurement-dependent; one measures what one can, not necessarily what is most significant, and one may only measure what one hopes will support a theory – a choice has to be made what to measure, and that choice may be subjective even to the extent that it is determined by a single researchers desires, fears or competence.

Philips alludes to the notion of others that objectivity on an inquiry may be conveyed by a community of inquirers but consensus is not required (it would be unlikely) but rather critical scrutiny. Even competing arguments could be accepted as objective because “objective does not mean true”.

Philips argues that even judgement within a framework or a paradigm may be construed as objective if it is reviewed by peers. This leads on to a surprising idea that novels (fiction) may be judged objective, and this has been supported by some institutions.

Nonfoundationalist epistemology requires judgement of objectivity to be conveyed only when the procedure is such that it offers peers opportunity to repudiate it or refute it. A continuum exists from subjectivity on the left through to objectivity with practical objective inquiry as close to the right as possible. Opposing arguments may be equally judged objective and neither may necessarily be valid.

Philips is rejecting extreme relativism where anything goes, as he calls that subjective. Eisner judges it worthless too.

Eisner objects to na├»ve realism, and Philips is not signing up to it here. Both Eisner and Philips are pragmatically recognising the limits of objective inquiry. Where they differ seems to be significant, but about how valid justification of qualitative research really is. In my words, Eisner claims it is polluted by interference and Philips says (my words), “So what if it is, it is the best we can aspire to; so long as we are careful and cautious, there will be no harm done.” Both philosophers agree that caveats have to be applied to so-called objective inquiry. Eisner says objectivity is impossible; by redefining what is meant by the label objective inquiry, Philips says it is possible but results are not guaranteed.

My Reaction To This Paper

Eisner’s and Philips’ arguments in their context are both valid. The difference between quantitative research and qualitative research in terms of objective inquiry has shifted through necessity over the decades. Eisner is right that people are too complex and bring baggage to research so that it is not ontologically objective and they change what they are researching so that research is not repeatable in the strictest sense. Philips argues that Eisner is undervaluing peer review and procedural rigour having worthwhile results that can be tested for repudiation or rejection. Objective does not mean true and is not dependent on an individual researcher. Consensus of peers can make a position objectively defensible. That too is valid.

Is life objective or subjective? You are born, right? You die, right? In between you do the best you can. That is the meaning of life.

If you agree, it is an objective argument; if you don’t agree, it is subjective. One still will not know whether it is true.

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