Is subjectivity biased?

Okay, not surprisingly, the answer to whether subjectivity is biased is ‘no’. LET’S GO HOME! Just kidding! Remember math tests? It wasn’t the answer at the end, but how you got there.

Ok, so science: you’ve got your objectivity and your subjectivity. We’re supposed to be all: objectivity is the best! subjectivity is the worst! But it’s a bit more complicated than that. Objectivity is like this (Fig. 1):


Figure 1: Objectively, this is the only way to represent objectivity. If you disagree with me, then you’re obviously biased.

And by ‘this’, I obviously mean a one-eyed alien. Why? What else could objectivity be like? Also, let’s be clear: the alien is clearly British because, so far as I know, only Brits smile with both their top and bottom teeth showing. I have it on the good authority of something I once read somewhere. BACK TO OBJECTIVITY NOW! Objectivity is like when (a) you say what you see; (b) it doesn’t matter who sees what you’re seeing, all of you would see the same thing, and (c) it doesn’t matter what part of the thing you’re looking at – it doesn’t have parts so that whatever you see represents the whole thing. Donna Haraway calls this the “God Trick”, as in: there is an all-seeing eye and it doesn’t belong to anyone and it doesn’t matter where it is; the thing is seen. By whom?! That passive voice! Seriously, who is doing the seeing? God? OR A ONE-EYED BRITISH ALIEN???! Only Donna knows. (Editor’s note, which is me: I don’t actually know Donna Haraway well enough to just call her by her first name, which is what makes me doing that funny, but only if you know, hence this note.) You can read all about this in Donna Haraway’s Situated Knowledges. (um, note: it’s not for beginners if you ask me.)

Okay, so we’ve got objectivity (see Fig. 1). What about subjectivity? Subjectivity looks like this (Fig. 2):


Figure 2. Objectively, this is the only way to represent subjectivity. If you disagree with me about this, why are you so biased?

Yes, that’s right. Subjectivity looks like a weird map of Texas! Ok, seriously. Subjectivity is like objectivity in some ways: with both, you say what you see. But, with subjectivity, who’s doing the seeing can matter, because where you’re looking literally changes what you see. And, it does matter what part of the thing you’re looking at; it has parts, so whatever you see doesn’t represent the whole thing. Where you are, who you are, matters to what you see. Maybe your life experiences help you see things someone else can’t see. Maybe your social location adds blinders such that there are things you can’t see but that others experience. Some of our lived experiences differ in ways that affect where we look, how we see, what we see, and whether we like milkshakes or not.

So where does bias come in? I guess it comes in a number of ways. One is that some people don’t really understand the idea of subjectivity; i.e., that a thing might differ to different people. A thing may not have only one version of thingness. What? For example: I study sexual desire, among other things. Most research on sexual desire (including a lot of my own past work) assumes that sexual desire is one thing, experienced in the same one way by all people, varying perhaps only by a matter of degree. But what if sexual desire is experienced in different ways? What if I ask you how strong your desire is and you answer thinking desire is X (e.g., desire to experience orgasm), while someone else answers thinking desire is Y (desire to touch someone). You might put the same answers (e.g., high desire), but these ‘same’ answers don’t mean the same thing! Uh oh. My objective question isn’t so objective, is it! Who’s wrong? Me! For thinking that everyone means what I mean when I say sexual desire and also for thinking there’s only one way to experience sexual desire before I empirically demonstrate that. And also me because where’s my milkshake?! It is objectively wrong to not have a milkshake; at least that is something we can all agree on. Basically, why people think subjectivity is biased: some people think that they see for everyone, so they view any disagreement as bias.

Where else does bias come in? Bias comes in, obviously, in not reporting what you see. That could be true for objectivity or subjectivity. But people tend to think of both subjectivity and bias as the opposite of objectivity. So it’s one of those the enemy of my enemy is my friend sort of transitive logic things (I THINK) whereby both opposites of objectivity (bias and subjectivity) become Paris Hilton BFFs forever. But that’s not true! Bias could map onto objectivity! You could be biased not only for reporting things you don’t see, but for saying that what you see represents the whole of the thing you’re looking at when, in reality, you’re only looking at part of it:

biased objectivity

Figure 3. I’m biased objectivity! You can tell because I think the things I see represent the whole but I’m wrong! I say globby thingie, when really it’s weird map of Texas!

You could also have biased subjectivity, where someone doesn’t really critically engage with what they see, and they just report some who-knows-what with a lot of pointy parts. Yes, a defining feature of biased subjectivity is its pointy parts AND YOU CAN TAKE THAT TO THE BANK. (not really.) (why not?! give it a try and let me know how it goes at the bank.)

biased subjectivity

Figure 4. I’m biased subjectivity! I’m kind of reporting what I see, but not really, and maybe a little bit of what other people told me they see because that sounds good. And pointy!


Let’s sum up: you’ve got your objectivity, you’ve got your subjectivity, and you’ve got your bias. Bias can intersect with objectivity, and bias can intersect with subjectivity. Lots of folks argue that bias is more likely to intersect with objectivity than subjectivity, because assuming you’re objective can blind you to your bias! That’s why Sandra Harding proposed ‘strong objectivity’ (see here for Harding’s article); i.e., a science that involves being as objective as you can be, and then supersizing that objectivity by adding in some subjectivity (thinking about your own social location) to reduce bias. So, some of us think the most scientific way of doing science is objectivity+subjectivity. DID I JUST BLOW YOUR MIND?! Maybe objectivity and subjectivity aren’t opposites, or orthogonal, or antagonistic, but complementary. Maybe the only way to do unbiased science is to check your own biases, not ignore them or pretend you don’t have any. So, really, what I want to say is: subjectivity + objectivity = the true Paris Hilton BFFs.

So, in case you just skipped to the end of your math problems in high school, and STILL DO: the answer to whether subjectivity is biased is ‘no.’


You may also like...

4 Responses

  1. Tanya says:

    Okay this was great. The graphics really helped and now I actually have an incentive to read through the rest of the two articles.
    Thank you VERY MUCH! 😀

  2. Chuck Franks says:

    Enjoyed the read. Takes me back to my undergrad work in education. To observe a teacher teaching a classroom used to be view as an objective process but we now know by being in the room observing creates changes in the environment that then are reflected. Knowing our presence already alters the observation can allow us to own our own presence(bias) when we are striving for objectivity.

  3. Sari van Anders says:

    Tanya: Glad to hear it!

  4. Sari van Anders says:

    Exactly, Chuck!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *