Objectivity and Subjectivity in Classical Sociology

[This is a slightly expanded version of a handout I have given to my second-year social theory students.]

These terms ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ come up a lot in social theory, and they are quite tricky, because in different contexts they have different meanings.  Specifically, the words ‘objectivity’ and ‘subjectivity’ have different meanings according to whether we are speaking ontologically or epistemologically.

Ontology is about things. Ontological statements are statements about what we think is real.

Epistemology is about knowledge. Epistemological statements are statements about what we think is true.

In the realm of ontology, objective things are mind-independent and subjective things are mind-dependent.  In other words, objective phenomena are those that exist outside of, or independently of, the human mind. This includes things like rocks, trees, physical bodies, and concrete behaviours. Subjective things, on the other hand, exist only in the human mind. This includes thoughts, feelings, perceptions, motivations, desires, fears, dreams, and so on. In the realm of epistemology, on the other hand, objectivity and subjectivity refer to the status of truth-claims.

In the realm of epistemology, a statement is objectively true  if it is true for all rational observers, that is, if all rational people, exposed to the same evidence, would be able to agree on the same conclusion.  A statement is subjectivity true if even rational observers exposed to the same evidence would be unable to agree on the same conclusion.

So, for instance, a rose is objectively real – that is, ontologically objective – because it is a physical object which exists independently of the human mind.  A statement like “this rose has seven thorns on its stem” is epistemologically objective because it can be verified and agreed on by all rational observers.  However, the statement “this rose is beautiful” is considered subjective because beauty is considered something that rational observers may legitimately disagree on.

Conversely, a dream is subjectively real – that is, ontologically subjective – because it exists only in the human mind.  However the statement “last night Jane dreamt about flowers” can be epistemologically objective. If Jane reports having a dream about flowers then, assuming she is speaking truthfully, all rational observers can agree that this event did take place.

This distinction is important for studying social action. For instance, a person might carry out a certain action or pattern of action because of a religious belief – that is, they have certain beliefs about God, the soul, the afterlife, morality, and so on.   A belief in God (or a nonbelief) is itself subjective; it is a state of mind.  This is more obvious because presently there is no accepted objective answer to the question of whether God exists, despite over 2500 years of philosophical debate on the subject.  However, rational observers can agree that a particular group of people (e.g. Puritans) did in fact believe in God.  Thus we can make objectively true statements about people’s subjective beliefs.

ontologically epistemologically

objective

rocks, trees, heat, motion, physical actions empirical observations and measurements; logically necessary inferences

subjective

thoughts, feelings, beliefs, dreams, desires value-judgments, expressions of emotion, metaphors, intuitive leaps

Emile Durkheim and Max Weber agreed on the goal of producing epistemologically objective knowledge.  However, they disagree about how important ontologically subjective and objective things are to sociological explanation.

Durkheim for instance, made two important claims:

  1. collective ways of acting, called “social facts”, exist objectively, independently of the individuals who carry them out; and
  2. we should study social facts entirely by their objective properties, without privileging the subjective meanings those actions have for the individuals who perform them.

Weber disagreed exactly with both of these claims. Weber makes two opposite claims:

  1. the only things that exist in society are human individuals and their actions; when we talk about patterns of actions as if they were things (e.g. “the Catholic Church”, “the Canadian government”) we are speaking metaphorically not literally; and
  2. to properly know and understand social action we must study the subjective meanings that motivate that action for the concrete individuals who carry it out.

Most sociologists today lean more towards the Weberian position. However, many still think that Durkheim was right, while others try to combine the two positions in one way or another.

Why does this matter?  Well, if we are trying to change society, then these meta-theoretical choices inform how we direct our efforts.

If we take the Weberian view, then we should focus our efforts on changing people’s minds.  If social reality is (inter-)subjective then the only way to change that reality is to change people’s subjectivity, which means addressing the meanings which motivate our actions. To do this we need to understand those meanings on their own terms. Broadly speaking, we change society through communication.

If we take the Durkheimian view, however, then we should focus our efforts on changing these external social facts. It’s harder to imagine what this involves since we usually are oriented to action and experience at the level of interactions between individuals, but in general terms it puts a greater emphasis on the need for collective action and on changing practices on a mass scale. This means we change society through large-scale social organization.

The two perspectives are not mutually exclusive. The Weberian wants to change mass patterns in social action and the Durkheimian wants to change individual subjectivity.  But at the very least these two approaches to understanding social life imply different emphasis, focus, or priority for imagining, planning, and carrying out a program of social change.

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12 thoughts on “Objectivity and Subjectivity in Classical Sociology

  1. “The two perspectives are not mutually exclusive. The Weberian wants to change mass patterns in social action and the Durkheimian wants to change individual subjectivity. But at the very least these two approaches to understanding social life imply different emphasis, focus, or priority for imagining, planning, and carrying out a program of social change.”

    Perhaps I am mistaken. According to the two paragraphs preceding this one, would it not be the other way around?

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    • Hi Adam, Thanks for giving me the chance to clarify. What I mean to say is that, even though Weberians focus on individual action they are still interested in changing the actions of groups, and even though Durkheimians focus on objective social facts they are still interested in changing individual subjectivity. The difference is that Weberians treat collective phenomena as simply the sum of individual actions and Durkheimians understand individual actions as products of collective forces. In terms of the things they study and also their interest in social change Weberian and Durkheimian approaches can overlap considerably; the difference is that they approach their interests from different angles, so to speak.

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