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In Defense of Passion. Part One: The sword of Objectivity

I am always surprised when I find myself in a conversation that harkens back to the Enlightenment dichotomy separating body & mind, reason & emotion, assuming science as absolutely objective, and only scientific understanding as valid.

Recently I was in a conversation where being passionate about a topic was equated to being biased. Quick context: As an academic, I publish across modalities including journal articles, book chapters, edited books, and full-length book manuscripts. I asserted that those that find their academic passion in publishing in a specific mode (such as publishing books) should be the same ones determining how that area can be evaluated, especially if others do not have the experience.

The response intrigued me. “We need people that can be objective (their emphasis) writing evaluation policy, not people who are passionate!”

Clearly, I should have chosen a different word.

“Wait,” I responded, “I am passionate about writing books and (my emphasis) I can also be objective.”

At this point it made no difference that I had more experience from which to speak. That single word, passion was my Achilles heel. Objectivity, the end-all-be-all trump-card was played. And I lost.

What this recent exchange reveals, and what I have experienced as a qualitative researcher over decades, is how many times the Objectivity trump-card is still played across academic conversations.

I first remember diving into the challenges to Objectivity as an undergraduate student of Sociology, learning for the first time about critical social theory and how power shapes who can claim “expertise” over an experience. I came to see how our reality is apprehended over time and shaped by social, cultural, economic, ethnic, and gendered factors that are reified into a series of structures that are now (inappropriately) taken as real, biological, and indisputable.

Learning even more deeply as a doctoral student, I studied under some of the most prominent critical ethnographers in education. I still have my copious notes from lectures on how to explain to others that a term like objectivity is as socially-constructed as the term love, in its many iterations. And yet in academic research, I question whether we can embrace the same reflexivity in understanding about the socially-constructed definition of objectivity.

As qualitative researchers we continue to push back against our work being classified as ‘subjective” and therefore dismissible; although potentially less so with every generation of researchers pulling back the curtain to reveal the Wizard of Subjectivities pulling the strings while calling their work Objective.

One of my favorite curtain-drawing-back moments as a student was when one of my professors asked in class, “Is a cancer-researcher’s work less valid because they want to end cancer? If they tell you they believe cancer is bad, that it hurts people, it robs their lives and they use an example of a mother, child, spouse, or friend that they know died from cancer that gives purpose to their work in research, is their research less objective? Less valid?” I remember that feeling of having my mind, inescapable blown. She gave me permission to have drawn upon an experience that gives meaning to my research AND my work be valid.

The human world is a world of subjectivities. Our most private thoughts are communicative, even if it’s just to communicate with ourselves. To communicate is to be embedded in a world of constant meaning-making and re-making. No research in which humans engage, natural or social, escapes communicative limitations.

Humans decide what to research, and in every decision is a value. Values can be accounted, addressed, mitigated but never completely expunged from the human research project. A researcher’s value orientations, which may be the reasons why we conduct research in our choice of subjects and sites, do not determine the analysis, the interpretations, or the final work we do in the field. While the investigator’s values inevitably influence the inquiry, the influence is in the focus, not in the findings.

I share this story because in this case, Objectivity was not just a term used. It was a sword. In my conversation, Objectivity claimed authority over Passion, suggesting focus impacted findings, and the Objectivity became the power to be both judge and jury in the conversation.

A sword that will become a Sword of Damocles in the end.

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