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The Importance of Objectivity in Sociology

This is an excellent Paper 1 example by Kindra Kerp.

Pick up a National Geographic magazine, flip through the pages and describe what you see. Perhaps the pictures that stand out are the ones that display people of different cultures practicing rituals or chores that you find extremely odd, maybe even frightening and horrifying. Why do you think that is, and what is it's relevance? What conclusions do you make about the people on those other-world pages?

Some cultures in Africa paint their faces with colorful paint, some Native American tribes used awls to pierce holes in their skin, and others wore their hair in specific and flamboyant styles. Each of these behaviors would be seen as odd in the modern American world, though a large chunk of people in our society practice variations of these activities (without flinching) every day- and they never get a second glance. Ladies wear ornate makeup, body piercing is all the rage in the teenage groups, and hairstyles can get down right freaky- but it's all attributed to personal expression and the individual's place in society. You wouldn't see an orthodontist with a green mohawk, a politician with blue eye shadow, or a punk rocker in a business suit. As long as the expresser is a part of the right population subgroup, it's all good.

So exactly why, as a people, do we shun that which is different and alien to us? In Sociology in Everyday Life, authors Margaret L. Andersen and Howard F. Taylor state that “People have strong opinions about social questions, and they may have deeply felt commitments” (44). Differences in culture often cause misunderstandings and, “The consequences can range from trivial to serious,” according to David Funder, professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside (405). Trivial misunderstandings may include language misinterpretation leading to some inconvenience or another, while a serious misunderstanding could entail law breaking in a country abroad where you thought you were practicing a common or casual behavior. Also described by Funder is the “outgroup homogeneity bias” where the group someone belongs to includes several vastly different types of individuals, but everyone outside that group is “all the same.” The assumption is that if they aren't like us, they're all the same, they're all wrong, and they just don't belong.

Personal biases are hard to escape. Many are obvious and known to us, making them somewhat controllable, while other biases are subconscious and have a mind and influence of their own. Biases and assumptions are variables in scientific research that make a difference in the outcome of whatever it is that's being studied. As a science, Sociology needs to be as objective and fact based as possible. Science teaches truths. Without objectivity, whether due to an intentional action or an unconscious stereotypical assumption, misinterpretations can occur to invalidate or transform research into something false. Over-generalizations- they're all the same, bias- I don't like those guys, and selectivity- let's just forget about that- are some behaviors that can discredit the field of Sociology and mislead some who are genuinely seeking an understanding of a society.

If one relies on the first impression upon seeing something new and mysterious, it shuts down the opportunity to learn. If a cultural practice strikes one as odd and alarming, that person
may decide that practice is revolting, then turn and run. A roadblock has forever been placed between the two cultures: native and foreign. The first impression says to rebel, not to accept the new experience as relevant or how it contributes to the foreign society- that's all one would need to know while walking (or running) the other way. But suppose the outsider looked on with objectivity and ignored or suppressed the inclination to reject what he or she beheld. Perhaps that person would stick around and learn about that culture and the context to which that behavior belonged. Suddenly appearing is a unique opportunity to obtain new knowledge of humankind and to expand the idea of the collective human experience. That would be much more valuable than to simply observe, reject, and forget, both on a personal level and on a much more broad context- for the good of knowledge.

“Different cultures see the world very differently, and to understand them... we need to seek to understand how reality looks from an alternative point of view” (Funder, 400-01). This statement fits right in with the “Insider-Outsider” debate of sociology. Should one be an insider- a member of- or an outsider- foreign to- the society or culture being observed? An insider might ignore some facets of culture that are ingrained and taken for granted in their own culture. Fish aren't aware that they breathe differently than other species, they just do. But is sure is a huge difference that a scuba diver would appreciate. In contrast, an outsider might have difficulty interpreting a behavior and might over-emphasize differences. A certain college professor distributed a report to her class on a prominent North American people in which the author set himself up as an outsider looking in. The report included terms such as “extreme”, “torture”, “magic-ridden”, “supernatural”, “exorcism”, “masochistic”, and “sadistic”. Very few would adopt these descriptors as a part of their own culture, and many of her students were shocked and appalled upon the revelation that these words were being used to describe daily activities of Average Joe in the United States. Perhaps the best way to learn includes representation and collaboration from both the insider and the outsider.

Without a firm grip on objectivity, barriers for communication, learning, advocacy, and education are inevitable. Real learning relies upon the necessity of looking on with the intent to and success of gathering only the facts in detail- without selectivity. The power of influence rests in the hand of the writer. For good or bad, benevolent or malevolent, to contribute to society's understanding or stifle it, an author or researcher holds the responsibility to the rest of humankind to be accurate and fair in reporting observations of something new and alien. Knowledge and education depend on it.

Works Cited

Andersen, Margaret L., and Howard F. Taylor. Sociology in Everyday Life. Mason: Thomson Wadsworth, 2008.

Funder, David C. The Personality Puzzle. 3rd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2004.