EDEV_507 Week 7_4

Continuing our discussion on the reliability of findings in a grounded study approach, I’d like to comment on the notion of subjectivity. Gasson’s (2004) metaphor of the hot stove (p. 85) inadvertently highlights a serious issue in generalisation: namely;

“If we put our hand on the stove and it is burned, we learn that hot stoves will burn us. But then it is through deduction from empirical evidence that we can identify and avoid hot stoves (this is the expected shape for a stove and it is turned on)” (p. 85)

and subsequently;

“Inductive analysis is treated as suspect because it introduces subjectivity into research and so the findings can be challenged, from a positivist perspective, as not measured from, but subjectively associated with the situation observed” (p. 85, italics in original).

To continue the metaphor, look at the conditions of the stove. Its status as ‘on’ is confirmed through a visual, not a tactile, stimulus. Yet, given the continuum from ‘just on—and still cold’ to ‘on for a while—and piping hot’, we recognise that there is no available epistemology in Gasson’s example that accounts for ‘on’ states that are still touchable. This seemingly trivial example helps place the role of subjectivity within the potential wider phenomenological frameworks available to the human experience. If all observers, i.e. human agents who have the same (or within a humanly measurable range of) perceptions, record any phenomenon with accurate measurements, then, arguably, the results should be similar.

This argument is known as Aumann’s Theorem (Aaronson, 2004; Aumann, 1976) which posits that;

“If two people have the same priors, and their posteriors for an event A are common knowledge, then these posteriors are equal” (Aumann, 1976, p. 1236).

In other words, if two individuals have the same knowledge (through experience, learning and cognitive abilities—an unlikely situation but one that offers a philosophical base from which comparisons become possible), and they know equally about a future possibility, for example the existence of aliens (in Aaronson’s [2004] example), then those two individuals will necessarily have the same opinion about the likely existence extra-terrestrial aliens.

It is trivial to state that all humans have different priors and that that leads to different interpretations of sense data and to different opinions about future events. Where the issue becomes more interesting and more relevant to grounded theory, is not the possible differences between interpretations of data, but how the researchers themselves are different.

“One cannot step twice into the same river, for the water into which you stepped has flowed on” (Heraclitus, cited in Bentz & Shapiro, 1998, p. 60).

Although I subscribe to the social constructionist worldview (Berger & Luckmann, 1967), and currently my sympathies lean towards critical realism (Bhaskar, 2008), I cannot shake the notion that much of constructed social fact are epiphenomena emanating from complex (not complicated) interactions at the intersection of perception and personal history. This, I believe, is not disputed. However, in my readings into social constructionism, especially symbolic interactionism, this intersection is rarely accounted for. Instead, divergences between interpretations of phenomena are passed over as being a natural result of individual differences. Quite possibly, the thought of having to trace an individual’s experiential lived world back to birth while taking into account individual differences in psychological traits and attributes is seen as being too complex to be worth the trouble. Far easier it is to simply accept that humans have different worldviews as in Gasson (2004). However, this position is too facile.

All humans feel hungry after prolonged fasting. All humans get sleepy. All humans share so many common experiences and our basic anatomy (including the brain mechanisms) are so similar that the argument that our perceptions are unique is one that needs to be proved, not accepted.

It is unthinkable for a PhD—even less an EdD—to attempt to answer these questions. Yet, on the other side, reducing complexity to simplistic notions of difference also fails in its intellectual scope. This recognition is partly the reason that the Bentz and Shapiro (1998) text was assigned at the very beginning of this module: self-awareness is vital in research. But it only goes so far. I don’t think that it is wise yet to discount the positivist* worldview in grounded theory research although currently there are no frameworks to do so, although symbolic interactionism offers the closest model to date (Blumer, 1969; Mead, 1962).


*By ‘positivist’, I don’t mean quantitative methods per se. I mean that the ultimate understanding of our human world can be achieved by studying how epiphenomena emerge from stable levels, and by ontologising those levels further down at the social level.

Aaronson, S. (2004). The Complexity of Agreement, 27. http://doi.org/10.1145/1060590.1060686

Aumann, R. J. (1976). Agreeing to disagree. The Annals of Statistics, 4(5), 1236–1239.

Bentz, V. M., & Shapiro, J. J. (1998). Mindful Inquiry in Social Research. Sage Publications. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications. http://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781107415324.004

Berger, P. L., & Luckmann, T. (1967). The social construction of reality. New York: Doubleday.

Bhaskar, R. (2008). A realist theory of science. London and New York: Routledge. http://doi.org/10.2307/2184170

Blumer, H. (1969). Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gasson, S. (2004). Rigor in Grounded Theory Research: An Interpretive Perspective on Generating Theory From Qualitative Field Studies. In M. Whitman & A. Woszczynski (Eds.), Rigor in Grounded Theory Research (pp. 79–102). Hershey; PA: Idea Group Publishing. http://doi.org/10.4018/978-1-59140-144-5.ch006

Mead, G. H. (1962). Mind, self, and society: From the standpoint of a social behaviourist. (C. W. Morris, Ed.). Chigago: University of Chicago Press. http://doi.org/10.1080/01463376009385121

About theCaledonian

Scot living in north Japan teaching at a national university.
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