7 Objectivity and bias in research
There has been, and continues to be, a great deal of debate about whether or not research can be objective, and what this means. One interpretation of this term is ‘unbiased’, but the word ‘bias’ is also used in different ways.
The word ‘bias’ is generally used to refer to systematic error in sampling (often referred to as ‘sampling bias’). However, in other contexts, ‘bias’ is restricted to a different source of systematic error: that which could arise from the political or practical commitments, theoretical expectations or assumptions of the researcher. Incidentally, in applying this word, it is important to distinguish between, on the one hand, a researcher having such commitments, expectations and assumptions (and in one respect or another these are probably impossible to avoid, and it may be undesirable to attempt to abandon them) and, on the other hand, those commitments, expectations and assumptions actually causing systematic error in how the research is carried out. The term ‘bias’ ought to be restricted to the latter situation. Moreover, it is not just that having various commitments and expectations does not necessarily bias one’s interpretations of the world, they may actually facilitate the process of reaching sound conclusions. Additionally, even where they threaten to lead us into error, we can take precautions against this, and monitor our judgements to check whether it has happened.
If we define ‘bias’ in this way, it is possible for a researcher to be objective, at least in principle: that term being taken to mean doing research in such a way as to try to minimise bias. Of course, we can never be absolutely sure in practice that no bias has operated. But, even so, it is nevertheless desirable to minimise potential bias. We should note, though, that this is a highly contentious area about which there is much disagreement and debate.
There is an additional problem with the term ‘objectivity’ that should also be highlighted. Sometimes it is interpreted as implying that the account produced by a researcher captures the nature of the ‘objects’ investigated. In other words, this word is treated as synonymous with ‘validity’ or ‘truth’. Also, often, this usage is associated with a particular interpretation of ‘validity’ in which knowledge amounts to a direct representation of how things truly are, for example capturing their essential character. In our view, it is best to avoid using ‘objectivity’ in this second sense.