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26-07-2022 | Original Article

Cutting Off the Branch on Which We Are Sitting? On Postpositivism, Value Neutrality, and the “Bias Paradox”

Authors: Axel van den Berg, Tay Jeong

Published in: Society

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Abstract

One of the most widely agreed-upon tenets of the current “postpositivist” consensus in sociological theory is the categorical dismissal of the pursuit of value neutrality in the social and natural sciences, a pursuit that is seen as both futile and undesirable. This dismissal is based on the rejection of the “positivist” claim that mainstream scientific knowledge is in some sense more objectively valid than other forms of knowledge. But this results in a “bias paradox:” on what basis can those denying the possibility of any value-neutral knowledge still claim validity for their own knowledge claims? In this paper, we analyze a series of attempts, broadly going under the label of “standpoint theory,” to resolve the paradox. We show how each of these is seriously flawed and that efforts to repair those flaws have merely led to a covert return to the kind of “positivism” the authors claim to reject. We conclude that this is the result of the persistent failure of “critical” theorists of various stripes to recognize the fact that the “positivist” ideals of value neutrality and objectivity embody the very principles of egalitarianism and democracy they claim to subscribe to.
Footnotes
1
A criticism which continued to echo well into the 1960s and early 1970s (Habermas 1968, 1971, 1973; Gouldner 1970, 1961; see also Agger 2013) until it eventually floundered as a result of the critical theorists’ inability to sustain any equivalent of the Marxian-Hegelian historicist faith on which it had originally been based (see, e.g., Jacoby 1981; Jay 1973, 2016; see also van den Berg 1980, 1990). More recently, Roy Bhaskar and his “critical realist” followers have tried to resurrect the attempt to derive values judgments from facts (for a trenchant critique of which, see Hammersley 2009).
 
2
For some representative catalogs of “positivism”’s many shortcomings see, e.g., Anderson (2019, sec. 7), Flax (1987, 624–625), Hartsock (1989, 17), Hawkesworth (1989, 547–551, 2012, 99–106), Hesse-Biber (2012, 8–9, 12–13), and Steinmetz (2005a).
 
3
As is common in the literature, we use the two terms interchangeably here. However, in what follows, we will use only value neutrality because the term value freedom is, for reasons that will become clear shortly, grossly misleading and has been the cause of much confusion.
 
4
We are well aware that the extent to which Weber himself consistently held this position is debatable (see, e.g., Dahrendorf 1987, 577–578; Portis 1986, 70–75). But see Hammersley (2017), Beiser (2011, chap. 13), and Douglas (2011, 514–516) for careful accounts that closely parallel ours.
 
5
Throughout this paper, we use “she” and “her” as the generic gender-neutral pronoun.
 
6
All italics in quotations are from the original unless explicitly stated otherwise.
 
7
For a recent example, see Christensen et al. (2019).
 
8
For many examples from the feminist literature, see, e.g., Anderson (1995, 58–79), Harding (1991, chap. 5), Hesse-Biber (2012, 5–9), Hundleby (2012), Longino (1990, chaps. 6–8), and Okruhlik (1994).
 
9
See, e.g., Anderson (1995, 76–79, 2019, sec. 4), Douglas (2007, 2011), Intemann (2010, 778–783), Longino (1990, 25–28, 53–57), Nelson (2003, 68–71), and Roush (2007, 172–174).
 
10
Of the specific examples of shared standards of evaluation that Longino provides, “empirical accuracy, truth, generation of specifiable interactions with the natural or experienced world, the expansion of existing knowledge frameworks, consistency with accepted theories in other domains, comprehensiveness, reliability as a guide to action, relevance to or satisfaction of particular social needs” (Longino 1990, 77), only the last one could possibly be construed as potentially in conflict with the Weberian position. On this see below.
 
11
Although Popper was one of the earliest and most prominent critics of logical positivism, he has nevertheless been treated as an arch-“positivist” by “critical” theorists (see Adorno 1976).
 
12
According to a slightly different variant of the underdetermination argument, it would be legitimate to allow non-epistemic values to play the “tiebreaker role” (Roush 2007, 180) whenever two theories are equally supported by the available evidence. But this is a purely pragmatic role, and by definition would not establish anything about the epistemic standing of the theories in question.
 
13
As we saw, Longino, too, appears to reject value neutrality in principle when she dismisses the “myth of scientific value neutrality” (Longino 1990, 224) and declares that “[t]he idea of a value-free science is not just empty but pernicious” (ibid., 191).
 
14
For some clear accounts of the main features of standpoint theory, see, e.g., Ashton (2020), Harding (2004b, 2012), Hawkesworth (1989, 2012, 107–108), Intemann (2010, 783–789), Tanesini (2019), and Wylie (2003, 2012a).
 
15
For an authoritative analysis of Lukács’ Marxism, see Kołakowski (Kołakowski 1978b, 253–307).
 
16
It is worth pointing out in this connection that Marx was firmly committed to this Hegelian historicist faith in the inevitable triumph of Reason well before he discovered the proletariat as the “universal” class that would bring it about (see, e.g., Gouldner 1980; Heinrich 2019; S. W. Moore 1980; van den Berg 2003, 51–53).
 
17
Which is precisely why Marx himself, in true Hegelian form, roundly derided such arguments as a hopelessly impotent form of “moralism” (see Kołakowski 1978a, 57–80, Ch. II and III; van den Berg 1984, 2003, 46–55).
 
18
As we argue at the end of the next sub-section, the only escape from this circularity would be to appeal to actual empirical evidence of that fraudulence, that is, to effectively invoke some kind of value neutral validity for this claim.
 
19
In Lenin’s fateful words in What Is To Be Done?, “[s]ince there can be no talk of an independent ideology formulated by the working masses themselves…the only choice is--either bourgeois or socialist ideology. There is no middle course (for mankind has not created a “third” ideology, and, moreover, in a society torn by class antagonisms there can never be a non-class or an above-class ideology). Hence, to belittle the socialist ideology in any way, to turn aside from it in the slightest degree, means to strengthen bourgeois ideology” (Lenin 1968, 45–46; see also van den Berg 2003, 125–126).
 
20
For a brilliant demonstration of the deeply religious roots of this fundamental aspect of Marxism, see Kołakowski (1978a, chap. I).
 
21
It is in fact one of Gallie’s original examples of such concepts in his famous article.
 
22
Similarly, Dorothy Smith speaks of a “bifurcated consciousness” (Smith 1987, 7–9, 86–89). Some invoke Hegel’s master-slave dialectic (Hesse-Biber 2012, 11; Harding 1986, 26; Smith 1987, 78–81) while many refer back to W.E.B. Dubois’ notion of the “double consciousness” (E. Anderson 2019, sec. 2; see, e.g., Harding 2012, 62, fn.2; Wylie 2012a, 63).
 
23
For very similar assertions on the part of a range of groups deemed to be marginalized and oppressed, see, e.g., Ashton (2020, 332–334), De Lauretis (1990), Harding (1991, 124–125, 131–132, 2015, 36), Hartsock (1983, 285, 1989, 27, 1998, 243), Intemann (2010, 788–789), Medina (2013), Narayan (2004, 221), and Wylie (2003, 63, 2012a, 63).
 
24
Although some formulations are not entirely clear in this respect. See, e.g., Collins (1986, 26–30), Intemann (2010, 789).
 
25
For the debate triggered by this much-discussed article, see Collins (1997), Harding (1997), Hartsock (1997), Hekman (1997a), and Smith (1997).
 
26
This critique has come to be associated with the notion of “intersectionality” coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw (see Crenshaw 1989, 1990; see also Collins 1998, 203–211, 2019; Bilge and Collins 2020; Collins and Chepp 2013).
 
27
Though even Harding herself presents it as no more than a “hypothesis made plausible by standpoint analysis” (Harding 2012, 55; see also Wylie 2012a, 61–63).
 
28
For Lenin’s views on the proletariat’s “spontaneous” consciousness, see van den Berg (2004, 122–129).
 
29
As Harding, writing about “ideologies” benefitting the “oppressors” puts it, “[s]ocial and natural sciences play an important role in developing and maintaining such ideologies, involuntarily or not” (Harding 2003, 297, italics added).
 
30
For a superb critique of the most important twentieth-century examples of such “Old Deferentialism,” see Haack (Haack 2007, chap. 2).
 
31
Although Haack may be right to suggest that “the naïf...who assumes that science is a rational enterprise because it is a product of our culture, is surely a straw man” (2007, 182).
 
32
For a similar argument, see Burawoy (2016).
 
33
As well as deeply moral. On this, see Campbell (2014, 449–451).
 
34
For a brilliant defense of the fact/value distinction on precisely such “political” grounds, see Kołakowski (1977).
 
35
For an analysis of “positivism and its afterlife” that reaches similar conclusions to ours, see Hammersley (1995, chap. 1).
 
36
The potential pitfalls of a relativistic stance from a “progressive” point of view have been widely debated. In addition to the literature cited in footnote 25 above, see also, e.g., Anderson (2019, sec. 3), Gannon and Davis (Gannon and Davies 2012), Gelsthorpe (1992), Hammersley (1992, 1994), Hartsock (1989, 1990), Hesse-Biber (Hesse-Biber 2012, 11–13), Ramazanoglu (1992), and Williams (1993).
 
37
For this reason, some have advocated adopting “the terminology of “facts”... “evidence”...and “objectivity”...[because it] provides a valuable discursive authority” (Hundleby 2012, 29; see also Harding 2015, 186, fn.2). One suspects, however, that such a transparently opportunistic use of “positivist” terms (note the scare quotes around “facts,” “evidence,” and “objectivity”!) could easily backfire.
 
38
As Frank Parkin caustically put it, the Marxist assumption “that the proletariat was endowed with massive usurpatory powers” created the puzzle of “why workers failed to actualize it for their own political ends. This paved the way for a succession of Marxist theorists, from Lukacs and Gramsci to the Althusserian and Frankfurt schools, offering a diagnosis implying in the most oblique and scholarly manner that the proletariat was suffering from a kind of collective brain damage” (Parkin 1979, 81).
 
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Metadata
Title
Cutting Off the Branch on Which We Are Sitting? On Postpositivism, Value Neutrality, and the “Bias Paradox”
Authors
Axel van den Berg
Tay Jeong
Publication date
26-07-2022
Publisher
Springer US
Published in
Society
Print ISSN: 0147-2011
Electronic ISSN: 1936-4725
DOI
https://doi.org/10.1007/s12115-022-00750-8