Subjectivity in Qualitative Research

Fiona MacKellar

It is not uncommon to hear the declaration, “That's highly subjective” in some kind of academic discussion.   Typically, what the person is implying by making such a declaration is that a statement made by someone else is an issue that is highly interpretive and perhaps one in which there are a number of different stances one might take.   One might further assert that the person making the declaration is using academic discourse to say something along the lines of, “That's merely your opinion”.

It is thanks to Descartes that humans are all considered subjects.   His now famous “cogito ergo sum” or “I think, therefore I am” lead to the common understanding that humans may be recognized as sapient beings that are conscious of their existence and selfhood.   Subjectivity brings with it the notion of the individual as a sapient, sentient being, conscious of his/her self as an individual and able to act as a free agent.   In this sense, subjectivity is taken to mean of or relating to a subject and evokes the notions of interpretation, perspective, point of view, ideology, and world view.

Subjectivity is broadly used and has become a word with many subtle shades of meaning.   The most value neutral definition would be that it is the thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and desires that comprise a person's self identity.  

However, in a traditional scientific discourse, subjectivity is often presented as a polar opposite to objectivity.   In this sense, objectivity is often seen as an absence of bias, thus implicitly implying that subjectivity is equated with bias.

At this point, it must be noted that the way in which one views subjectivity in research is highly dependent upon one's epistemological and ontological assumptions.   In the traditional research paradigm that emerged from the natural sciences, objectivity is seen as an essential element in doing academic research and forwarding the general understanding of a field and as such, subjectivity is something which must be limited to the greatest degree possible in order to be able to assert a degree of generalizability in regard to the findings.   If humans happen to be a part of an experimental research method, they are typically treated as objects to be observed as opposed to thinking, feeling beings to be socially situated and unraveled.

  The social sciences are quite distinct in that inquiries typically focus on human subjects rather than the objects, symbols, or abstractions typically investigated in the natural sciences.   The subjective plays an important role in the social sciences as it is often ultimately what the researcher seeks to uncover and understand—how the social world is experienced, understood, and produced.

With interpretation of the subjective experience as one of the main goals in much social science research, it must be noted that this adds more layers to the relationship of subjectivity to qualitative research.   No longer is there only the researcher's subjective experience to be taken into consideration, there is now also that of the participants.

As there is no empirical way to get at what is going on inside someone's head, or in the heads of a group of individuals, many of the data collection methods used in qualitative research are necessarily interpretive and mediated by language and culture.   Mediation might also be seen as layered and complex in this type of research as the subject must interpret their experience and then the researcher must then interpret that interpretation.

The matter is further complicated by questions of researcher perspective—either as an outsider looking in, or from the inside as a member of the society or culture.   Once again, this perspective is highly dependent on one's epistemological outlook, for depending on how one looks at the act of knowing, one may not allow that seeing something from someone else's subjective perspective is possible.

While qualitative research seeks to understand the subjective experience, it must nonetheless be concerned with interpretive openness through a process by which the researcher attempts to acknowledge his or her preformed prejudices, biases, and stereotypes and in so doing reveal the lens through which he or she builds an interpretation of the subject.   Ultimately one is left pondering to what degree one can be transparent about one's subjectivity.

A highly positivistic, quantitative influence in qualitative data interpretation seems to be the use of something that might be thought of as establishing reliability through a form of consensus.   In this case, a researcher might seek a variety of independent opinions on the interpretation of various pieces of textual data.   The hope being that if four researchers look at something and agree 95 percent of the time, then the interpretation is reasonably objective—but in so doing it loses its subjectivity and perhaps its value as a piece of qualitative research.

In qualitative research, subjectivity is both a tremendous strength and a potential weakness.   The research methods we have to work with at present are such that we must accept the weakness and try to overcome it to whatever degree we can in order to reap the enormous benefits of context and subjective understanding that afforded by this style of research.

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