Obstacles to Objectivity


In sharp contrast toComte and Marx, Spencer gave much thought to the question of objectivityin the social sciences. Although Comte preached a good deal about theneed for scientific standards in the study of society, he was neverunduly perturbed by the thought that he himself might be found wantingin scientific objectivity, nor did he reflect on sources of possiblebias in his own work. Marx, of course, denied altogether that therecould be a detached and objective social science. Theory to him wasintimately linked to socialist practice.

Spencer, on the otherhand, was aware of the special problems of objectivity that arise in theinvestigation of a social world in which the investigators themselvestake part, and he saw in this a complication that does not arise in thestudy of natural phenomena. The social scientist, he claimed, must makea deliberate effort to free himself from biases and sentiments that areentirely appropriate and necessary for the citizen but that wouldvitiate the enterprise of the scientist were he tempted to carry themover into his scientific role. "In no other case," he writes,

has the inquirer the properties of an aggregate in which he is himselfincluded. . . . Here, then, is a difficulty to which no other sciencepresents anything analogous. To cut himself short from all hisrelationships of race, and country, and citizenship--to get rid of allthose interests, prejudices, likings, superstitions generated in him bythe life of his own society and his own time--to look at all the changessocieties have undergone and are undergoing, without reference tonationality, or creed, or personal welfare, is what the average mancannot do at all, and what the exceptional man can do very imperfectly.

No less than half of Spencer's The Study of Sociology is devoted to aclose analysis of sources of bias and of the "intellectual and emotionaldifficulties" that face the sociologist in his task. Chapter headingsinclude, "The Bias of Patriotism," "The Class-Bias," "The PoliticalBias," "The Theological Bias." Spencer here develops a rudimentarysociology of knowledge in which he attempts to show how the defense ofideal or material interests tends to shape and distort perceptions ofsocial reality. Spencer clearly deserves a place, if only a minor one,among those who, beginning with his great compatriot Francis Bacon, havedeveloped the sociology of knowledge.

This account of the majordoctrines of Herbert Spencer has emphasized some of their difficultiesand contradictions. It would have been intellectually irresponsible totry to explain them away. An examination of Spencer's life and of thesocial and intellectual contexts in which he worked will help explainthem.

From Coser, 1977:101-102.


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