Insider Research and Objectivity

Spanish School; The Child Papirius Saluting Harpocrates as God of Silence
The Child Papirius Saluting Harpocrates as God of Silence. Photo credit: Wellcome Library

Recently I have been told that it is not ethical to research something I have experienced because I will not be objective. Objectivity is seen as key to the scientific method and is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘the ability to consider or represent facts, information, etc., without being influenced by personal feelings or opinions; impartiality; detachment.’ 

It is true. I am not objective. I think that the abuse of children is a blight on humanity. How unemotional can we be when we study the human world that we live in? Is anyone unemotional about child abuse? Surely it is expecting too much and may in fact be an unwanted approach.  Sociologist Richard Jenkins argues that if objectivity means being unemotional it is at best misguided and at worst dangerous: the ‘sociologist without politics or values, without an ethical point of view on the human world, sounds too much like [Weber’s] ‘specialists without spirit’ (2002, p.9). 

I think that the use of the term ‘objectivity’ is actually to suggest that I will in some way manipulate the data to reflect my own views. I have no intention of doing so. I will try, as I hope all researchers do, to represent and consider all viewpoints in the data I gather in any research I publish. The conclusions will be mine, as with most research studies and this is why I think it’s important that I state where I am coming from. Also the anonymised data set will be available to other researchers so my interpretations can be evaluated. As Paul Hunt (1981) said, regarding the disability rights movement, ‘Oppressed groups have nothing to lose, and everything to gain, from the most precise and thorough understanding of the situation we are struggling to change. To change our oppressive reality we cannot afford to leave out of account any significant factor in the situation’ (p.43) and I completely agree with this approach.

There are people critical of the scientific method itself. Donna Haraway (2004) views science as ‘rhetoric, a series of efforts to persuade relevant social actors that one’s manufactured knowledge is a route to a desired form of very objective power’ (p.577).  Hunt (1981) argued that experts are more concerned with ‘presenting themselves to the powers-that-be as indispensable’ than questioning the status quo (p.39). Thus the veneer of objectivity when it comes to researching humanity can be seen as just as much manufactured and political as anything else.

Others have suggested that I should not disclose that I am an abuse survivor because it compromises my status as a researcher. Although I am aware of the relative power my position as a researcher brings I do not see the participants as objects to be studied but my equals; people active in their own recovery. I don’t see my experience of recovering as particularly special or having more validity than anyone elses so whilst I have opinions on recovering it doesn’t mean I’m right.

It can be argued that having experienced the issue being studied means I have a deeper understanding which can then be tested against others experience. The ‘only way to find a larger vision is to be somewhere in particular’ (Haraway, 2004, p.590). Researching from the perspective of marginalised or oppressed people adds a fuller and thus more complete view of society as well as challenging the status quo (Harding, 2004). I may well approach the subject from a completely different angle than someone who has not experienced it and surely different viewpoints mean a richer understanding?

There also seems to be an undercurrent here, maybe I’m being paranoid, of infantilising people who have experienced abuse. Does anyone say to an Asian British person that they can’t research racism? Or a woman can’t research sexism? Or that they cannot disclose their status as a person affected by the subject of their research? Is it because people who have experienced childhood sexual abuse are seen as inherently vulnerable and fundamentally ‘ruined’ that we are incapable of doing research without further damaging ourselves or others? Do we really believe that all the current researchers in this area are unaffected by it?

Alcoff and Gray (1993) argue that survivor voices are subversive and inherently political because they attack the dominant discourse in society and question truths; ‘At various times and in different locations survivor speech has been absolutely prohibited, categorized as mad or untrue, or rendered inconceivable’ (p.265). There are gender differences in these silencing techniques; women are labelled as hysteric or having a victim personality, men silenced through fears of homophobia and loss of masculine status (Alcoff & Gray, 1993). Ultimately I do see my disclosure of being a survivor of abuse as being political and is, therefore, to me a moral requirement. Other researchers can choose for themselves of course.

References

Alcoff, L. & Gray, L. (1993) Survivor Discourse : Transgression or Recuperation ? Signs, 18(2), pp.260–290.

Haraway, D. (2004) Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies. Vol 14. 3. 575-599.

Harding, S. (2004) The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual and Political Controversies. New York: Routledge. Smith,

Hunt, P. (1981) Settling accounts with the parasite people: a critique of “A Life Apart” by E.J. Miller and G.V. Gwynne. Disability Challenge, (1), pp.37–51.

Jenkins, R. (2002) Foundations of Sociology. Basingstoke, Macmillan.

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