Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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core definition

Objectivity refers to a reality external to the mind, as relating to external objects.

explanatory context

Objective is that which exists independently outside human consciousness, but which human thought genuinely reflects.


This, of course, assumes the existence of a real world and the reflective potential of consciousness.


The term objective has been applied to modes of enquiry and methods of data analysis. Objective, in this sense, assumes that some approaches are not dependent on the subjective consciousness of the researcher.


Objective research findings are thus ones that any other researcher performing the observation, or the same researcher using different methods, would also arrive at. This view assumes that there is a set of objective data that is there to be observed and can be revealed using a rigorous method.


One way of trying to achieve such objectivity is to set up precise and explicit rules to govern how the observations shall be made and how they may be interpreted. Another is to use triangulation to identify the influence of procedural and personal reactivity. The demands for objectivity vary between research styles but are particularly strong where the 'scientific' nature is emphasised: e.g. one of the basic assumptions in experimental work is that the personal influence of the experimenter should be nil. Such so-called objective approaches are usually judged on the basis of whether they are repeatable and reliable.


Such approaches tend to assume no mediating role for the researcher. Structured interviewing, where a random sample are asked the same questions in the same way and where the answers are analysed quantitatively is assumed (erroneously) to be an objective method. (See objectivism)


Many commentators would suggest, however, that objectivity is an ideal which can never be achieve, either in practice or theory.

analytical review

Elwell's Glossary of Sociology (undated) defines objectivity as:

Objectivity means striving as far as possible to reduce or eliminate bias in the conduct of research.


Bérubé (2005, p. 244) in New Keywords writes:

Objectivity, together with its cognates, objective, objectively, and objectivism, has what might seem to contemporary observers a placid history. There is widespread agreement that the term ‘‘objectivity’’ is synonymous with such things as neutrality, impartiality, and disinterestedness; the objective observer, for instance, is able to give a reliable account of events precisely because she or he has no interest in the outcome and is able to make statements and render judgments regardless of their consequences. Apparently, we have managed to agree about what an objective observer is, even though we usually disagree about whether this or that person has in fact served as an objective observer in any given case.

These disagreements are most noticeable in politics – and, to a lesser degree, in journalism – where charges of partisanship and bias are so common as to give the ideal of objectivity something of a quaint air. Indeed, many politicians seem to work with a definition of ‘‘politics’’ in which ‘‘politics’’ itself is antithetical to ‘‘objectivity’’; thus it is customary to hear that a ‘‘political’’ consideration puts party and partisan interest above all else, rendering objective assessments irrelevant or unavailable. In this sense of the ‘‘political,’’ one party will oppose something simply because another party has proposed it, without regard for the (‘‘objective’’) benefits or drawbacks of the proposal itself.

In journalism, by contrast, most parties agree that reporters should be bound by a code of professional objectivity. But in the US, with its weak public sector and its private ownership of most media, left-leaning critics of the media have long insisted that journalism is in practice conservative insofar as it is owned and operated by large corporate interests, whereas right-wing critics have insisted in return that journalists themselves are tainted by a liberal bias that prevents them from reporting objectively on such matters as race, sexuality, and religion (Chomsky and Herman, 1988; Goldberg, 2001).

What’s curious about the widespread agreement as to the meaning of objectivity in these debates is that the word is one of those rare specimens whose philosophical meaning was once directly opposed to its current meaning. In medieval philosophy the terms ‘‘objective’’ and ‘‘subjective’’ respectively meant what ‘‘subjective’’ and ‘‘objective’’ have denoted in Western philosophy since the C17, and especially since the eC19: the ‘‘subjective’’ denoted those features proper to what we would now call an object and that could be said to exist independently of perception, and the ‘‘objective’’ corresponded to the features of an object as they presented themselves to what we now call the subjective consciousness of an observer. With Rene´ Descartes, however, Western philosophy began to associate subjectivity with a perceiving ‘‘I’’; and since Immanuel Kant, most Western thinkers have agreed to parcel the world into objective phenomena that exist independent of mind, and subjective phenomena that are in one way or another mind-dependent (such as injustice) or wholly attributable to mindedness (such as anxiety).

Subjectivity, then, has come to be aligned with the partisan and the partial, and objectivity with all that pertains to objects as in themselves they really are (in Matthew Arnold’s phrase). One of the central questions for the philosophy of mind in the C19–C20 has accordingly been how to construe the boundary between objective and subjective phenomena, particularly with regard to matters such as color (which may or may not exist independently of our perception of them). Similarly, one of the central questions for moral philosophy has been how to parse out the potential domain and applicability of moral truth-claims, such that sentences like ‘‘it is wrong to torture another human being’’ might be understood to be grounded differently – that is, more objectively – than sentences like ‘‘it is wrong to eat pastrami with mayonnaise.’’ The idea here is that the latter judgment is a mere ‘‘subjective’’ matter of taste, since the eating of pastrami with mayonnaise presumably affects no one but the person eating the sandwich, however much it may offend the sensibilities of everyone else in the delicatessen. The practice of torture, by contrast, is widely felt not to be a simple matter of taste, but rather a serious moral issue calling out for intersubjective forms of agreement that will allow us to condemn torture ‘‘objectively,’’ without regard to who is being tortured or why.

Since the mC19, but especially in recent decades, social theorists have debated whether the standard of objectivity pertinent to the natural sciences, which pertains to things such as quasars and quarks, is appropriate to the social sciences, which involve things like kinship rituals, torture chambers, and parliamentary procedures. Proponents of objectivity in the social sciences claim that neutral, disinterested scholarship is the only medium by which we can obtain reliable knowledge in such fields as history, economics, anthropology, and sociology. Critics of objectivity counter-argue that no observation of human affairs can escape the inevitably human parameters of the observation itself, and that invocations of objectivity with regard to human affairs are therefore (knowingly or not) veils for partisan agendas that do not recognize their own partisanship. Not all critics of objectivity, however, are wont to accuse their opposite numbers of bad faith; some argue more moderately that ‘‘objectivity’’ is merely the wrong term for complex intersubjective forms of agreement. Richard Rorty, for example, has argued in a string of books beginning with Philosophy and the mirror of nature (1979) that utterances designated as ‘‘true,’’ whether in the realm of the natural sciences or in the realm of moral philosophy, should be understood not as accurate descriptions of mind-independent objects but as useful claims that have managed over time to ‘‘pay their way’’ (R. Rorty, 1982), thus providing pragmatic grounds for broad agreement among human investigators.

Some moral philosophers claim that Rorty’s position on objectivity amounts to a shallow relativism in which all value judgments are of equal standing. Be this as it may, it can be safely – and perhaps objectively – said, at the very least, that while most people agree that objectivity is akin to impartiality, philosophers continue to disagree strenuously as to whether objectivity is merely another name for human agreement.

associated issues

Weber's analysis of 'objectivity'

Writing on '“Objectivity” in Social Science', Weber ([c.1897] 1994) stated:

There is no absolutely “objective” scientific analysis of culture – or put perhaps more narrowly but certainly not essentially differently for our purposes – of “social phenomena” independent of special and “one-sided” viewpoints according to which – expressly or tacitly, consciously or unconsciously – they are selected, analysed and organised for expository purposes. The reasons for this lie in the character of the cognitive goal of all research in social science which seeks to transcend the purely formal treatment of the legal or conventional norms regulating social life....

The conclusion which follows from the above is that an “objective” analysis of cultural events, which proceeds according to the thesis that the ideal of science is the reduction of empirical reality to “laws,” is meaningless. It is not meaningless, as is often maintained, because cultural or psychic events for instance are “objectively” less governed by laws. It is meaningless for a number of other reasons. Firstly, because the knowledge of social laws is not knowledge of social reality but is rather one of the various aids used by our minds for attaining this end; secondly, because knowledge of cultural events is inconceivable except on a basis of the significance which the concrete constellations of reality have for us in certain individual concrete situations. In which sense and in which situations this is the case is not revealed to us by any law; it is decided according to the value-ideas in the light of which we view “culture” in each individual case. “Culture” is a finite segment of the meaningless infinity of the world process, a segment on which human beings confer meaning and significance. This is true even for the human being who views a particular culture as a mortal enemy and who seeks to “return to nature.” He can attain this point of view only after viewing the culture in which he lives from the standpoint of his values, and finding it “too soft.” This is the purely logical-formal fact which is involved when we speak of the logically necessary rootedness of all historical entities in “evaluative ideas.” The transcendental presupposition of every cultural science lies not in our finding a certain culture or any “culture” in general to be valuable but rather in the fact that we are cultural beings, endowed with the capacity and the will to take a deliberate attitude toward the world and to lend it significance. Whatever this significance may be, it will lead us to judge certain phenomena of human existence in its light and to respond to them as being (positively or negatively) meaningful. Whatever may be the content of this attitude, these phenomena have cultural significance for us and on this significance alone rests its scientific interest. Thus when we speak here of the conditioning of cultural knowledge through evaluative ideas (following the terminology of modern logic), it is done in the hope that we will not be subject to crude misunderstandings such as the opinion that cultural significance should be attributed only to valuable phenomena. Prostitution is a cultural phenomenon just as much as religion or money. All three are cultural phenomena only because, and only insofar as, their existence and the form which they historically assume touch directly or indirectly on our cultural interests and arouse our striving for knowledge concerning problems brought into focus by the evaluative ideas which give significance to the fragment of reality analysed by those concepts.

All knowledge of cultural reality, as may be seen, is always knowledge from particular points of view. When we require from the historian and social research worker as an elementary presupposition that they distinguish the important from the trivial and that they should have the necessary “point of view” for this distinction, we mean that they must understand how to relate the events of the real world consciously or unconsciously to universal “cultural values,” and to select out those relationships which are significant for us. If the notion that those standpoints can be derived from the “facts themselves” continually recurs, it is due to the naive self-deception of the specialist, who is unaware that it is due to the evaluative ideas with which he unconsciously approaches his subject matter, that he has selected from an absolute infinity a tiny portion with the study of which he concerns himself In connection with this selection of individual special “aspects” of the event, which always and everywhere occurs, consciously or unconsciously, there also occurs that element of cultural-scientific work which is referred to by the often-heard assertion that the “personal” element of a scientific work is what is really valuable in it, and that personality must be expressed in every work if its existence is to be justified. To be sure, without the investigator’s evaluative ideas, there would be no principle of selection of subject-matter and no meaningful knowledge of the concrete reality. Just as without the investigator’s conviction regarding the significance of particular cultural facts, every attempt to analyse concrete reality is absolutely meaningless, so the direction of his personal belief, the refraction of values in the prism of his mind, gives direction to his work. And the values to which the scientific genius relates the object of his inquiry may determine (i.e., decide) the “conception” of a whole epoch, not only concerning what is regarded as “valuable,” but also concerning what is significant or insignificant, “important” or “unimportant” in the phenomena.

Accordingly, cultural science in our sense involves “subjective” presuppositions insofar as it concerns itself only with those components of reality which have some relationship, however indirect, to events to which we attach cultural significance. Nonetheless, it is entirely causal knowledge exactly in the same sense as the knowledge of significant concrete natural events which have a qualitative character. Among the many confusions which the overreaching tendency of a formal-juristic outlook has brought about in the cultural sciences, there has recently appeared the attempt to “refute” the “materialistic conception of history” by a series of clever but fallacious arguments which state that since all economic life must take place in legally or conventionally regulated forms, all economic “development” must take the form of striving for the creation of new legal forms. Hence it is said to be intelligible only through ethical maxims, and is on this account essentially different from every type of “natural” development. Accordingly the knowledge of economic development is said to be “teleological” in character. Without wishing to discuss the meaning of the ambiguous term “development,” or the logically no-less-ambiguous term “teleology” in the social sciences, it should be stated that such knowledge need not be “teleological” in the sense assumed by this point of view. The cultural significance of normatively regulated legal relations and even norms themselves can undergo fundamental revolutionary changes even under conditions of the formal identity of the prevailing legal norms. Indeed, if one wishes to lose one’s self for a moment in fantasies about the future, one might theoretically imagine, let us say, the “socialisation of the means of production” unaccompanied by any conscious “striving” toward this result, and without even the disappearance or addition of a single paragraph of our legal code; the statistical frequency of certain legally regulated relationships might be changed fundamentally, and in many cases, even disappear entirely; a great number of legal norms might become practically meaningless and their whole cultural significance changed beyond identification. De lege ferenda discussions may be justifiably disregarded by the “materialistic conception of history,” since its central proposition is the indeed inevitable change in the significance of legal institutions. Those who view the painstaking labor of causally understanding historical reality as of secondary importance can disregard it, but it is impossible to supplant it by any type of a “teleology.” From our viewpoint, “purpose” is the conception of an effect which becomes a cause of an action. Since we take into account every cause which produces or can produce a significant effect, we also consider this one. Its specific significance consists only in the fact that we not only observe human conduct but can and desire to understand it.

Undoubtedly, all evaluative ideas are “subjective.” Between the “historical” interest in a family chronicle and that in the development of the greatest conceivable cultural phenomena which were and are common to a nation or to mankind over long epochs, there exists an infinite gradation of “significance” arranged into an order which differs for each of us. And they are, naturally, historically variable in accordance with the character of the culture and the ideas which rule men’s minds. But it obviously does not follow from this that research in the cultural sciences can only have results which are “subjective” in the sense that they are valid for one person and not for others. Only the degree to which they interest different persons varies. In other words, the choice of the object of investigation and the extent or depth to which this investigation attempts to penetrate into the infinite causal web, are determined by the evaluative ideas which dominate the investigator and his age. In the method of investigation, the guiding “point of view” is of great importance for the construction of the conceptual scheme which will be used in the investigation. In the mode of their use, however, the investigator is obviously bound by the norms of our thought just as much here as elsewhere. For scientific truth is precisely what is valid for all who seek the truth.

related areas

See also





Researching the Real World Section 1.7 for a detailed discussion of objectivity and subjectivity


Bérubé, M., 2005, 'Objectivity' in Bennett, T. Grossberg, L and Morris, M. (eds.) New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society, Oxford, Blackwell.

Weber, M., 1994, Max Weber, Sociological Writings . Edited by Wolf Heydebrand, Continuum, excerpt available at, accessed 13 May 2013 (quoted section about two thirds down the long page under the heading '“Objectivity” in Social Science'), still available 11 June 2019.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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