Is there room for both in social research?

We hear the word objective constantly in social research. Can social research be objective? Or does it limit our ability to embed equity at the heart of our work? Cathy Hearn, our Principal Consultant for Theory and Design takes a closer look.

Cathy Hearn

How the past impacts the present

Objectivity is often equated with scientific rigour but they are not the same thing. By claiming that you can know something objectively, you gatekeep who can be involved in producing and owning knowledge. It implies that there is one way to know things, and a limited group of peple have the tools to know them.

A little scrutiny uncovers a history of imbalanced power and deep injustices stemming from claims of objectivity in social science.

Confident beliefs that we can objectively measure people led to the development of eugenics and race science.

Claims of objectivity provided the intellectual power that justified colonial plunder, human rights abuses and genocide based on the belief that some humans are measurably lesser than others.

We’ve learned a lot from history and have far more rigorous standards for ethics in social research today. But we need to keep in mind one of the most important lessons from these darker parts of social science history: we all exist in a cultural and historical moment – and what we believe to be fundamentally true today is the product of the world we’re living in right now.

Social context is everything

Our beliefs about reality are fundamentally shaped by our environment. The research tools we use to measure the social world are the products of our own historical and cultural moment. More than that, our view of what is normal is heavily shaped by the voices of those who currently hold power and have the greatest influence over mass media and culture. In other words, our view of what is objective is shaped by the vested interests of people who occupy the most privileged positions.

By understanding that researchers are shaped by – and embedded within – our social context, we can reject the idea that it’s possible to take an objective view of the social world. Instead, we can examine our relationships with the people, communities and systems we engage with. We can apply rigorous theory-based and principle-led methodologies for understanding what works, for whom and in what contexts.

Every researcher and participant brings expertise and lived experience to the research process that enriches our findings and how those findings are used.

Theory in practice

Here’s an example of how this impacts our day-to-day work.

One of Renaisi’s specialist areas is youth safety. It’s important work that gives us the chance to collaborate with organisations that are driving crucial and impactful initiatives in this area – such as the Youth Endowment Fund and London’s Violence Reduction Unit.

Through our work engaging children and young people around questions of safety, we noticed something interesting: the young people we work with had different definitions of safety to those articulated by the adults who were commissioning or leading the youth safety work.

To truly understand what kind of intervention supports and encourages youth safety, we need to ensure our understanding of the term driven by the experience of the young people.

Quite literally, we need to talk the same language as the people we’re trying to empower.

Without this important step, both our tools and our research findings will be invalid and won’t reflect reality for children and young people.

In this area and other work, we’re committed to deepening our understanding of participants’ experiences, so we can ensure the interventions we’re helping to pilot and develop truly respond to the groups and communities we exist to support.

Embracing an equity-led approach

At Renaisi, we’re lucky enough to work with people at multiple levels across various systems: from direct service users and programme staff to organisations, funders, local authorities and central government.

We don’t engage with these partners as a neutral, objective outsider. There’s no such thing. We engage as connectors to an ever-growing body of learning and relationships.

We don’t look to extract information. We look to collaborate in the learning we’re generating together to push collectively towards more equitable and just systems.

To Renaisi, embracing an equity-led approach means:

  • Keeping people – and the places and systems we’re all embedded in – at the heart of our research.
  • Using participatory approaches that prioritise building knowledge with and by people, instead of doing research to or for them.
  • Embodying intellectual humility about the limitations of any methodological lens. Favouring mixed-method approaches that generate a richer picture, and being honest and pragmatic about what we can learn.
  • Using our power and position within the sector to challenge ourselves and other powerholders to examine assumptions about how – and with whom – we should be learning.
  • Not being afraid to take the stance that it may take longer, cost more, or require a more complex approach to conduct our work in equity-driven, person-centred ways.

By taking these steps – and by rejecting the idea that it’s possible to be objective – we’re forging a new and better path to a more just and equitable future.

Interested in exploring this topic more? Here are some of Cathy’s top picks:

  • Scene on Radio Podcast: Seasons One and Two focus on the concepts of whiteness and masculinity, the ways that they have historically been treated as neutral or default, and the social harm that that has brought about.
  • How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X Kendi: Kendi plots out the ways in which the social and cultural world we inhabit today was fundamentally shaped by the weponisation of ‘objective’ scientific methodologies designed to justify social hierarchy, enslavement and colonial plunder.
  • The View from Somewhere Podcast: This podcast takes on the concept of objectivity in journalism. Host Lewis Raven Wallace presents the ways in which claims of objectivity have helped keep dominant narratives at the centre and actively marginalised people with oppressed social identities. Lewis also identifies examples of joirnalists who are working to do things differently.
  • Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer: Kimmerer is a botanist and a citizen of the Potawotami nation. In this series of essays, Kimmerer critiques the tendency of traditional western scientific approaches to create artificial boundaries between the objects of study and the wider systems they exist in. This worldview struggles to account for the complexity and interconnectedness that characterises the world around us. She demonstrates how indigenous ways of knowing and wider scientific practice can enrich one-another.
Cathy Hearn