The Future of Objectivity (2)

Reading Bammer and Boetcher Joeres’ The Future of Scholarly Writing through the lens of “objectivity”, guided, in the first instance, by the book’s own index, reveals a somewhat embattled concept. (See part 1 here.) Objectivity is mentioned mainly as an illusory experience to be eschewed or an unreasonable demand to be rejected. In some cases (but not the one I will talk about in this post) it is granted a kind of limited dignity, but the general mood of the book’s contributors seems to be that objectivity is overrated. It has had its chance to shape our scholarship and it has been found wanting, even damaging. Some would prefer it went away altogether, others would at least open the literature to alternatives. (Of course, it has already been opened in this way in places.) For my part, I am happy to acknowledge that the pursuit of objectivity not only has a cost but that some of these costs have, historically, been too high. At the end of the day, however, I hope the notion of objectivity retains its epistemological legitimacy. It is worth pursuing — perhaps not solely for its own sake, but for ends that are in fact quite valuable.

“I have no problem declaring,” says Leo Spitzer, “that I am not an ‘objective historian’ in the old sense”  (193). Indeed, he “abhors” the traditional “neutrality” of historians and their “omniscient narratives.” He does not, like them, “claim to stand above the fray” but is, rather, an “engaged historian” who writes in a “personal voice”. Perhaps most tellingly, he refers to this as “so-called” academic writing.

He grounds his stance in his “feeling of empathy”, which he defines and specifies as “a predisposition to sympathize with the hopes, aspirations and frustrations of the subjugated and displaced” and traces back to his childhood among “German speaking, largely Jewish refugees” in Bolivia and, later, as an immigrant to the United States. But it is, perhaps surprisingly, not this personal background that he uses to justify his rejection of objectivity. Indeed, he seems, for a moment, apologetic about the limits of his empathy, his inability to cultivate it to the point of an objective understanding of the people he has studied. He seems to be saying that true objectivity requires us to be able to see the world exactly as someone else does, to “get inside their skins”. It is, in the first instance, because this is beyond the reach of even his empathy, that he cannot declare himself an “objective historian”.

I don’t share this view of objectivity. I don’t think we can or should try to be objective about the subjective, lived experience of other people. I don’t think failing on this score is a failure to be objective. Objectivity merely requires us to note those facts that are experienced in the same way as any other person who is acculturated to experience them in that way. A fact can be experienced differently by different people. An “objective” fact is what everyone who is properly trained to do so sees in it.

Spitzer rejects this kind of objectivity too, however. His goal, he says, “is not to provide a seamless impersonal narrative in which subjectivity and emotion are suppressed or left unacknowledged.” But that’s putting it rather strongly. After all, many claims of historians are perfectly objective acknowledgements of the subjectivity and emotion of the people they study. (My favorite example is when Daniel Defert declares that “Wage-earners liked having the right to find employment where they pleased.”)  We can very definitely write a seamless impersonal narrative in which subjectivity and emotion are foregrounded and acknowledged.

For Spitzer, however, it is necessary to reject objectivity because historians are themselves implicated in the historical process. This is perhaps the best argument he offers, since it points to the very real reflexivity of all social science, not just history. We are in most cases members of the cultures were are studying, a fact that I have recently myself invoked for my own purposes. (Of course, my argument there was not against being objective in our scholarship, but against being objective about our scholarship. The distinction is an important one, but one I’ll leave for another occasion.) Here’s how Spitzer describes his perspective on history and historiography:

For me, the voice (or, perhaps more accurately, the voices) of the historian, however interested, as well as the multiple voices and memories of the participants–the stories they tell and how they tell those stories–are as much part of the fabric of history as are written records and other archival materials. To take into account and reveal subjectivity and affect–to consider what is remembered as well as what is forgotten, fears as well as imaginings, the apprehension and misapprehension of events–complicates and restores a measure of contingency to history. It deepens our historical understanding and helps us to resist interpretative closure.

There is little one wants to disagree with here except the suggestion that these goals are beyond the reach of “objective historians”. Indeed, one wants to say that in order to do justice to the many voices of the people who live and shape history one might usefully document them, not just in the first-hand personal account of the historian, who hears a story and tells it to the reader, but by corroborating those aspects of the stories that can be corroborated and thus made better able to stand up against the “contingency” of history. That word, after all, denotes the well-known possibility of “rewriting” history, to include those previously excluded and exclude those previously included, to redistribute the emphasis, to shift the blame, to declare the victor. Historians play a significant role in history for this very reason, but we do not want them to be merely another set of history’s actors, another group of participants. We want them, to use Spitzer’s own phrase, “to stand above the fray.” To cultivate an impartiality.

Surely a historian can acknowledge multiple stories, multiple accounts, multiple voices, and not declare any of them “objectively” true? The objective facts of history are that the stories are being told.

[Part 3]

2 thoughts on “The Future of Objectivity (2)

  1. Thomas, this post provokes me. As a social scientist mucking about in the field of management, I am caught between the so-called hard sciences and domains which are generally not science, but have some pretensions. Such as history. I bought and read a very interesting book called Objectivity by Daston and Galison some years ago. It is a nice account of what objectivity means (and has meant through time) in physical and natural sciences – a throughgoing discussion of epistemology in the socially constructed worlds of scientific inquiry. I admit that I keep thinking that those sciences have it easy compared to the social sciences – socially constructed worlds of inquiry comprising socially constructed study of social constructions. But I also thought there is opportunity for some of Daston and Galison’s epistemology to be valid for our attempts at “objective” analysis. Maybe I am overly optimistic. I have always been pessimistic about history and your post reassures my pessimism. But now I must revisit the role of subjectivity in my field, particularly as it relates to writing for journals and management books.

    I truly hope that you will get access to the 10-episode documentary on the Vietnam War by Ken Burns. Though my assessment is doubtless colored by the fact that I lived (as a young, though sentient, adult) through the American involvement in the war and saw the carnage on the battlefields and in the streets of America every night on televised news, this is brilliant history. And it is chock-a-block with personal perspectives, subjective beliefs, and the other stuff that denies objectivity. And many historians hate it. It is not, one hears, real history.

    1. I think the tension between my view and Spitzer’s is that he seems to think objectivity is not worth achieving and sometimes even stands in the way of reaching his goals. I think that, while objectivity is never fully accomplished, it is an accomplishment nonetheless. Its value, I think, lies in the way it opens our personal experience to the criticism of others. There’s a difference between a history of the Vietnam War that *includes* personal perspectives and one that merely *is* a personal perspective (or collection of personal perspectives). That’s what I was trying to say in my final paragraph.

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