Herbert Spencer: Obstacles to Objectivity
Obstacles to Objectivity
In sharp contrast to Comte and Marx, Spencer gave much thought to the question of objectivity in the social sciences. Although Comte preached a good deal about the need for scientific standards in the study of society, he was never unduly perturbed by the thought that he himself might be found wanting in scientific objectivity, nor did he reflect on sources of possible bias in his own work. Marx, of course, denied altogether that there could be a detached and objective social science. Theory to him was intimately linked to socialist practice.
Spencer, on the other hand, was aware of the special problems of objectivity that arise in the investigation of a social world in which the investigators themselves take part, and he saw in this a complication that does not arise in the study of natural phenomena. The social scientist, he claimed, must make a deliberate effort to free himself from biases and sentiments that are entirely appropriate and necessary for the citizen but that would vitiate the enterprise of the scientist were he tempted to carry them over into his scientific role. "In no other case," he writes,
has the inquirer the properties of an aggregate in which he is himself included. . . . Here, then, is a difficulty to which no other science presents anything analogous. To cut himself short from all his relationships of race, and country, and citizenship--to get rid of all those interests, prejudices, likings, superstitions generated in him by the life of his own society and his own time--to look at all the changes societies have undergone and are undergoing, without reference to nationality, or creed, or personal welfare, is what the average man cannot do at all, and what the exceptional man can do very imperfectly.
No less than half of Spencer's The Study of Sociology is devoted to a close analysis of sources of bias and of the "intellectual and emotional difficulties" that face the sociologist in his task. Chapter headings include, "The Bias of Patriotism," "The Class-Bias," "The Political Bias," "The Theological Bias." Spencer here develops a rudimentary sociology of knowledge in which he attempts to show how the defense of ideal or material interests tends to shape and distort perceptions of social reality. Spencer clearly deserves a place, if only a minor one, among those who, beginning with his great compatriot Francis Bacon, have developed the sociology of knowledge.
This account of the major doctrines of Herbert Spencer has emphasized some of their difficulties and contradictions. It would have been intellectually irresponsible to try to explain them away. An examination of Spencer's life and of the social and intellectual contexts in which he worked will help explain them.
From Coser, 1977:101-102.