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Objectivity

Finally, objectivity is a skill, like language fluency, and you can build it if you work at it. Some people build more of it, others less. More is better.

If an objective measurement is one made by a robot—that is, a machine that is not prone to the kind of measurement error that comes from having opinions and memories—then no human being can ever be completely objective. We can’t rid ourselves of our experiences, and I don’t know anyone who thinks it would be a good idea even to try.

We can, however, become aware of our experiences, our opinions, our values. We can hold our field observations up to a cold light and ask whether we’ve seen what we wanted to see, or what is really out there. The goal is not for us, as humans, to become objective machines; it is for us to achieve objective—that is, accurate—knowledge by transcending our biases. No fair pointing out that this is impossible. It is impossible to do completely, but it’s not impossible to do at all. Priests, social workers, clinical psychologists, and counselors suspend their own biases all the time, more or less, in order to listen hard and give sensible advice to their clients.

Colin Turnbull held objective knowledge as something to be pulled from the thicket of subjective experience. Fieldwork, said Turnbull, involves a self-conscious review of one’s own ideas and values—one’s self, for want of any more descriptive term. During fieldwork you ‘‘reach inside,’’ he observed, and give up the ‘‘old, narrow, limited self, discovering the new self that is right and proper in the new context.’’ We use the field experience, he said, ‘‘to know ourselves more deeply by conscious subjectivity.’’ In this way, he concluded, ‘‘the ultimate goal of objectivity is much more likely to be reached and our understanding of other cultures that much more profound’’ (Turnbull 1986:27). When he was studying the Ik of Uganda, he saw parents goad small children into touching fire and then laughing at the result. It took everything he had, he once told me, to transcend his biases, but he managed (see Turnbull 1972).

Many phenomenologists see objective knowledge as the goal of participant observation. Danny Jorgensen, for example, advocates complete immersion and becoming the phenomenon you study. ‘‘Becoming the phenomenon,” Jorgensen says, ‘‘is a participant observational strategy for penetrating to and gaining experience of a form of human life. It is an objective approach insofar as it results in the accurate, detailed description of the insiders’ experience of life’’ (Jorgensen 1989:63). In fact, many ethnographers have become cab drivers, exotic dancers, jazz musicians, or members of satanic cults, to do participant observation fieldwork.

If you use this strategy of full immersion, Jorgensen says, you must be able to switch back and forth between the insiders’ view and that of an analyst. To do that—to maintain your objective, analytic abilities—Jorgensen suggests finding a colleague with whom you can talk things over regularly. That is, give yourself an outlet for discussing the theoretical, methodological, and emotional issues that inevitably come up in full participation field research. It’s good advice.

 
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