||A word that only became widely used in English in the nineteenth century. It took on three distinct meanings which still persist today. The first derives from a distinction between objectivity and subjectivity. To be subjective means to exercise personal judgements based upon individual taste or preference. To be objective, however, is to eliminate reference to the personal altogether, and to appeal to some higher guarantor of truthfulness. Typically, that appeal is to a particular methodology, such as the scientific method, or philosophy, such as positivism. The consequence is that personal bias is purged, resulting in an objective view. The second meaning is neutrality or disinterestedness. In this definition the opposite of objectivity is not subjectivity, but something like political advocacy or social judgement. An additional argument sometimes made here is that the social sciences, because of their very subject matter, necessitate value judgements, while the natural sciences, because of their \'objective\' subject matter, do not. The final meaning of objectivity, and emerging particularly with the work of American pragmatist philosophers, is communal judgement. Inquiry is not objective because it employs a particular method, or is value-free, but because it is collectively agreed upon by a community of scholars.
Each of these three meanings has been elaborated over the course of the twentieth century, sometimes generating heated debate. Furthermore, they can be correlated with specific movements in post-war human geography.
The first meaning â€” objectivity as a special method â€” was especially prominent in the first part of the twentieth century, and was associated with the celebration of scientific practice and concomitant philosophies such as positivism and logical positivism. This meaning of objectivity became critical to human geography during the late 1950s and early 1960s when there was an attempt to remake the discipline in the likeness of natural science. One of the means to do so was through the use of mathematical and statistical techniques (see quantitative revolution). As David Harvey (1969, p. 179) put it, mathematical \'systems provide an objective and universal language for discussing geographical problems\'. The difficulty by the early 1970s, though, was that many of those geographical problems were increasingly expressed in a value-laden language â€” urban racism, rural poverty, slum housing â€” that could not be easily accommodated within a formalized vocabulary. As hard as people tried, value judgements kept creeping in.
This leads to the second meaning â€” objectivity as neutrality. While neutrality continues to be a goal in the physical sciences, its attainment in the social sciences has been seen as increasingly problematic. The argument, first made by philosophers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein and Michael Polanyi, is that knowledge, experience, practice and value judgement are indissolubly linked within the realm of the social. As a consequence, even the basic vocabulary of the social sciences is soaked in moral and political imperatives â€” goods seem good, equilibrium sounds harmonious, class appears divisive, place is comforting, but space rather cold and bleak (see moral geographies). Human geographers first mounted a systematic critique of objectivity as neutrality during the 1970s, which was often associated with radical geography. In particular, the infusion of Marxism sharpened the discussion of objectivity by geographers in two ways (see Marxist geography). First, it introduced the idea of ideology, the notion that all inquiry (except the Marxist one) is biased. Second, it insisted that all practitioners of the social sciences are engaged in an advocacy project whether they know it or not. On the political Left the goal is to change the system, and on the political Right to keep the status quo.
The third meaning, associated with pragmatism, has become increasingly important in geography with the growing interest in postmodernism and post-structuralism. In this view objectivity is socially constructed within a specific community of a given time and place. Rather than lying outside human practices, objectivity is produced within them through dialogue, forming strategic allies, and exerting power. Objectivity is not something final and fixed, but provisional and in process. For critics of this view the result is intellectual anarchy, a world bereft of reliable truths (see relativism). For proponents, however, nothing of the sort eventuates. We continue the same practices, and believe the same truths, except we realize that the objectivity in which we put our trust is fallible and human-made, and not, as Haraway (1991, p. 193) puts it, \'a God\'s eye view\' (see local knowledge and situated knowledge).Â (TJB)
References Haraway, D.J. 1991: Simians, cyborgs and women: the reinvention of nature. London: Routledge.Â Harvey, D. 1969: Explanation in geography. London: Edward Arnold.
Suggested Reading Bernstein, R.J. 1983: Beyond objectivism and relativism: science, hermeneutics and praxis. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, part 1.Â Haraway (1991), ch. 9.