‘While it is advisable to interrogate our research to see if we’re not engaging in wishful thinking and to make sure it is capable of acknowledging possible circumstances of which we disapprove, our values need not be a problem. Sometimes… values may even have a positive effect by directing us to issues and aspects of situations others miss, as in the case of feminism and gender, whereas attempts at value-freedom may just result in blindness to values that are present.’
In a recent workshop with first year History students, we discussed the many, varied and contested meanings of ‘criticality’ when engaging in historical scholarship. The bulk of the workshop involved a discussion of a journal article with prompting questions to help stimulate reflection and debate. Prior to this we did a more general exercise designed to open the notion of criticality itself up to closer scrutiny. The exercise presented students with a series of statements claiming to offer a definition of what being a ‘critical historian’ meant and students were invited to reflect on, and discuss, how far they agreed with each and why. One of the statements was along the lines of criticality involving a suspension of values and value-judgements in order to arrive at a properly ‘objective’ analysis of historical phenomena. The purpose of the exercise was to discuss how far it is epistemologically valid, or ethically justifiable, to exercise a kind of detached values-neutrality in historical research and debate.
The exercise was followed-up by a presentation of Douglas Porpora’s (2015) discussion of the relationships between objectivity and values-neutrality. Students were presented with Porpora’s example of how to objectively describe the Holocaust. In the book (p.14), he describes presenting his own students with the following question:
‘Which of the following is the most objective statement about the Holocaust:
In World War II, six million Jews lost their lives.
In World War II, six million Jews were killed.
In World War II, six million Jews were systematically murdered.’
As Porpora goes on to explain, most of his students reply that they believe statement number (1) to be the most objective on the grounds that it also (apparently) steers most clear of value-judgements. This, in turn, suggests their high level of commitment to the belief in the synonymity between objectivity and values-neutrality. As he goes on to point out, however:
‘Surely… [the answer] is statement (3), the least neutral of the three, that is most true and objective. …[T]o be objective is not to be neutral but to be true to the object of consideration. When the object of consideration is the Holocaust, the truest account is that six million Jews were systematically murdered. The two more neutral accounts are not objective. Instead, their posture of neutrality actually misleads us about what happened…
…There is then no escape from value judgement. Neutrality, too, is a value judgement and not always the most objective one. Sometimes, as above, it is neutrality that represents bias.’ (p.15)
What’s helpful to me about this example is that it illustrates both the shallowness and the ethical dangers inherent in erroneously automatic conflations of ‘objectivity’ and ‘values-neutrality’. As Porpora demonstrates, in the Humanities and Social Sciences there’s something about the very object of study (human society and its various histories, ideologies, practices, struggles, antagonisms, social relations, cultural products etc.) that means that values and value-judgements are inescapable and necessary if we’re to be true to that object and have any hope of producing meaningful knowledge about it.
Terry Eagleton makes a similar point in his book After Theory (2004). In the chapter on ‘Morality’ (which Eagleton quite rightly distinguishes from a kind of prudish, nineteenth century-style ‘moralism’) he sets out the necessity of value-laden language in enabling us to describe and make sense of the world we experience and observe (pp. 149-150):
‘To see a situation as abusive or exploitative is inevitably to offer an interpretation of it. We will only see it as such within a certain context of assumptions. Oppression is not there before our eyes in the sense that a patch of purple is.
Does this mean that oppression is just a matter of opinion? Not at all… Moral language is not just a set of notions we use to record our approval or disapproval of actions; it enters into the description of the actions themselves… We cannot describe what is actually there without recourse to the beliefs and motivations which it involves. In the same way, we could not describe to an observer ignorant of children what was happening when one small child snatched a toy from another without resort to concepts like envy, rivalry and resentment. And this is one sense in which moral language is not just subjective.’
(NB. A topic for another day, perhaps, but this discussion also invites us to be wary of those common and well-intentioned attempts to distinguish ‘being critical’ from ‘being descriptive’. In my experience, the two are far too often presented in unhelpfully binary terms. Description can, after all, itself be the product of critical reflection and engagement with the object of description.)
Apart from the epistemological necessity of value-laden language there’s also, surely, something quite horrifying about the thought of what kind of people we would need to be in order to feel that (supposedly) values-free descriptions of the social world were appropriate. What kind of state would we have to have reached, for example, to believe that ‘a time and place where different people led observably different kinds of lives’ was an adequate description of apartheid South Africa; or that ‘a system that utilised and mobilised natural and human resources to facilitate production and exchange on a more global scale than had been hitherto the case’ successfully captured the most salient truths about the history of colonialism and slavery? As well as being inadequate and morally dubious, these descriptions are, of course, anything but the result of a suspension of value-judgements. As Porpora makes clear, the decision to adopt the pose of neutrality in such matters is itself a value-judgement; not so much ‘above the fray’ as right in the thick of it, whilst pretending to merely observe from the side-lines (apologies for the mixed metaphor, here!). Likewise, our often laudable attempts to try and understand people and their beliefs ‘on their own terms’ involves value-judgements (not least concerning which people and whose terms), as do our judgements about what to do with this knowledge. We can argue about all of this on a case-by-case basis, of course, but in doing so we’d also be involved, in part at least, in a contest of values. We’d be utilising concepts and values available to us in the here and now in order to reach our potentially differing conclusions about the past – its meaning and significance. It wouldn’t be a question of one side indulging in ‘moralising value-judgements’ whilst the other acted as doughty defender of detached, values-free ‘objectivity’.
More generally, what the session as a whole also helped to underline was the importance of context-sensitive approaches to discussing criticality with students. We need to steer clear, I think, of overly generalised definitions of ‘critical thinking’, and/or overly prescriptive ‘procedures’ for developing more critical relationships with knowledge and its production. As Brenda Jonston et al. make clear:
‘In higher education, the shape and nature of criticality itself is socially constructed and contextually permeated (with localized sub-field, institutional, departmental and other variations)… Our students are attempting to perform social and intellectual practices of particular fields, the rules of which they may only partially understand.’
(Johnston et al., 2011)
The challenge lies in finding ways of ensuring these various ‘social and intellectual practices of particular fields’ (including the inescapable roles that values and judgements make at every stage of the process) might be better known and practised by students.
Eagleton, T. (2004) After Theory, London: Penguin Books
Jonston, B., Mitchell, R., Myles, F. and Ford, P. (2011) Developing Student Criticality in Higher Education, London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
Porpora, D. (2015) Reconstructing Sociology: The Critical Realist Approach, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sayer, A. (2000) Realism and Social Science, London: Sage Publications Ltd.
One response to “Criticality, objectivity and values-neutrality”
[…] quoted the following from Johnstone et. al. before, but what they have to say about student criticality in particular is really helpful, I think, in […]