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Ideology And Objectivity

Critical theory in the social sciences has devoted a lot of energy to criticizing both objectivity and ideology. As I see it, those are the two poles of the same continuum. All social theory has two components -- explanation and politics. Explanation is the picture you give of how the world works, while politics is how you propose to change the world, or at least the value judgements you make about it.

Objectivity is the subordination of politics to explanation. An objective person stands back from the situation, setting aside his or her opinions in order to find out how the world really works. Only once a valid explanation has been constructed can you consider what political consequences it entails. I won't go into the arguments about why objectivity is impossible, except to say that my conclusion is that even the most well-meaning "objective" social research necessarily smuggles in some unacknowledged political commmitments.

The opposite stance is ideology. Ideology is when explanation is entirely subordinated to politics, so that the way you portray the world is nothing more than a tactic for advancing your cause. Standpoint epistemology -- in which the first step of understanding a situation is to side with the oppressed -- is a self-conscious attempt to be ideological. Pure ideology is impossible, however (though I think you can get closer than to objectivity). Even the standpoint epistemologist must start with an explanation that identifies who are the parties to be potentially sided with. We always find ourselves "thrown" into the world, possessed of some amount of both explanation and politics as a starting point.

What's needed, then, is a productive middle ground in which the political bases of your approach to understanding society are acknowledged, but the resulting explanation is able to challenge those political stances. In a sense this partakes of a higher political commitment, a commitment to something like "improving society" rather than to a specific goal like "defeating the biotechnology industry."


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