The Future of Objectivity (4)

The idea that objectivity is an attribute of “the male gaze” has been with us since the 1970s and has played an important part in the feminist critique of science. In her contribution to The Future of Scholarly WritingAnna Grimshaw briefly touches on this issue, mainly in a footnote on Judith Okely’s “The Self and Scientism” (from 1975, reprinted in the 1996 collection Own or Other Culture), which explored the place of personal experience, and therefore subjectivity, in anthropological fieldwork. “Okely argued against the perception among social scientists that subjectivity was a problem to be overcome in pursuit of objective research,” Grimshaw explains. “She called for the acknowledgement of the important role played by subjectivity in participant observation” (157, n3). Since Grimshaw doesn’t say more about objectivity as such, I had a look at the relevant pages in Okely’s essay for this installment in my series on the future of objectivity.

Okely rightly points out that subjectivity is seen mainly as a impediment to knowledge, as something that needs to be kept from undermining our efforts to know the world. She makes a good case for the idea that subjectivity is actually the “medium” through which we understand other people. In an important sense, we might say, the anthropologist’s subjective experience is our measuring instrument, so it does seem somewhat odd to think of it as something to be kept out of our study of other people. She cites Maquet as suggesting that fieldwork is actually only something we do out of necessity, when studying illiterate cultures, and Nadet for suggesting that anthropologists should work in teams in order to avoid dependence on a “single mind” for experience. I think she makes a compelling case for approaching subjectivity as a substantive virtue of participant observation rather than a necessary evil.

I’m less comfortable with the somewhat radical conclusion she draws from this, and with the gendering of the issue. These are brought together in a quote from Anaïs Nin’s diaries:

Now analysis is revealing how little objectivity there is in man’s thinking … Man generalizes from experience and denies the source of his generalizations. Woman individualizes and personalizes, but ultimately analysis will reveal that the rationalizations of man are a disguise to his personal bias, and that woman’s intuition was nothing more than a recognition of the influence of the personal in all thought. (Quoted by Okely, p. 29)

It is one thing to promote subjectivity and quite another to denigrate objectivity. The idea that it is somehow false, and perhaps even oppressive, doesn’t sit very comfortably with me. The quest for objectivity, as I understand it, has never tried to disguise the fact of personal biases; it has merely suggested that those biases can be countered and that a limited, but clear, view of the facts can be achieved. Finally, I really don’t think that subjectivity and objectivity are gendered traits. As Nin points out, men are ultimately as subjectively grounded as women, although in 1975 it may have been accurate to say the men were more conditioned to check their subjective biases and adopt an objective stance. Today, four decades later, women are raised with the same awareness of objective reality as men. Indeed, I would add that women are as capable of objectivity as men. I’m not going to get into the question of whether this capacity is equally distributed among men and women, though I hope it won’t be controversial to suggest that it’s not equally distributed among individuals. Moreover, the interest in being objective is itself a personal matter, a subjective attitude, if you will.

It’s not my place to propose feminist strategy, but I don’t think the rhetorical opposition of a genuine female subjectivity with a mere pretense of male objectivity gets the issue quite right. Subjectivity and objectivity alike can be authentic postures or superficial gestures. We can pursue them in earnest or merely pay lip service to them. Men are no more capable of pretending here than women are. And women, in my experience, are are no less capable than men of recognizing and overcoming subjective sources of error.

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