Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997
Hammersley, M. and
Gomm, R. (1997) 'A Response to Romm'
Research Online, vol. 2, no. 4, <http://www.socresonline.org.uk/2/4/7.html>
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Received: 27/10/97 Accepted:
A Response to Romm
We welcome Romm's comment on our article (Hammersley
and Gomm, 1997; Romm, 1997). However, there
does not seem to be much common ground between us. Here, as with an
earlier critique of our position by Humphries, very fundamental
disagreements seem to be involved (Humphries,
1997; Hammersley, 1997).
- In her article, Romm
criticises the account of bias that we put forward because, she claims,
it 'excludes (as outside the range of relevant argument in research
communities) a serious consideration of alternative epistemological
orientations' (Abstract). This is a puzzling accusation given that a
whole section of our paper was devoted to discussion of relativism and
standpoint epistemology. Perhaps her implication is that our treatment
of these was not 'serious'? Of course, we do not find those alternative
epistemologies convincing, and we explained why. While, contrary to
what Romm says, we would not want to exclude consideration of them from
the research community, we do not believe that they provide a sound
basis for research. Indeed, we see them as a source of bias. In that
sense, at least, it is not the case that we leave the kind of approach
that Romm recommends unaccounted for (¶8.1)!
- Romm also complains that we
did not sufficiently account for our own position in the article. It is
true that we did not spell out all its aspects in detail, but we
provided an outline of it and references to where the background
argument could be found (see Note 13 of
our article). It is not possible to deal with everything at once, and
our primary concern in that paper was to consider the implications of
nonfoundationalism for the concept of bias.
- In effect, Romm proposes a
different definition of the purpose and nature of social research from
us; indeed, one that departs from what is characteristic of the bulk of
current social research (though things are changing). She argues that
'knowledge-construction activities should be linked to cultivating
forms of relationship which do not unfairly authorise particular ways
of accounting at the expense of others' (¶1.2).
Despite the reference to 'knowledge construction', what is crucial for
Romm, it seems, is whether what is being done in the name of research
facilitates people expressing themselves in their own terms.
- What we have here is a clash
between two different values as the regulating principles of research:
truth and what we might call expressive equality. However, Romm does
not tell us why expressive equality should be the regulating principle
of research. Instead, she simply judges our approach in terms of
her principle and, not surprisingly, finds it wanting. She seems
to assume that a nonfoundationalist realism is impossible, without
addressing the arguments put forward by us and others in support of it.
And her response to the standard criticism of relativism fails to
recognise how deep it goes. In fact, the nature of her response to this
issue is unclear. Is she arguing that the long recognised pragmatic
contradiction at the heart of relativism is 'manageable', or that it is
no contradiction at all (hence the scare quotes that it acquires in ¶5.2)? What does 'manageability' mean
in this context: that it is possible to get away with being inconsistent?
Since 'reality' also acquires scare quotes in this paragraph, it seems
that the pragmatic contradiction is being denied. But, if so,
what exactly is the nature of the 'reality' that Romm thinks we can
'decide' to engage with differently (¶5.2)?
Furthermore, if phenomena have no existence independently of accounts,
then, neither do other people; and so there is little point in allowing
them to 'presence' their worlds. If Romm believes that other people
exist independently of our accounts of them, so too must other things
(at least there is nothing in her argument to explain why not). In
effect, she assumes realism even while she is arguing for relativism,
and this is true despite the fact that her emphasis is on ethics rather
- As regards Romm's response to
our discussion of standpoint epistemology, we do not deny that there
are forms of Marxism which depart from Hegelian assumptions. Some
Marxists have effectively been positivists, others have been neo-Kantians,
others structuralists, and there are even poststructuralist Marxists,
though it is not uncommon for them to label themselves post-Marxists.
Romm's discussion seems to imply that Marxism can be re-established on
a relativist basis. But, aside from whether it is desirable, this is
simply to return to the problems of relativism.
- Romm's relativism also
rebounds on her advocacy of expressive equality. In the spirit of
relativism, we must surely ask: Whose conception of morality is she
privileging when she declares that there is 'a responsibility to allow
for people to have different ways of presencing their worlds' (¶5.2)? And who is to 'decide', and on
what basis, whether positions are 'likely to have the outcome of
excluding others' rights to expression'(¶5.3),
or that an approach 'might be contributing to a process of sustaining
unnecessarily certain forms of authoritative relationship to society
[...]' (¶4.2)? And why, on
relativist grounds, should anyone who disagrees with these judgments
give them any validity? How could any exclusionary criteria, however
well-intentioned, be defensible within a relativist context? Necessarily,
the justification for such criteria could only apply within the
framework of the paradigm that had generated them; it would not apply
to other paradigms. (See Fish (1994) for this
argument put from a relativist point of view.)
- Instead of making the case
for expressive equality as the most appropriate goal for researchers,
Romm simply insists that tolerance requires including her approach
within what is counted as research; even though she then seeks to
exclude our more traditional approach as morally inferior. In this way,
she takes for granted not only the value of expressive equality, which
is fair enough, but also that it should be privileged over all other
values, which is very controversial. While we accept the importance of
different voices being heard in both political and research contexts,
we do not see this as the only important consideration or as the
immediate goal in either context. One can agree that all voices should
be heard in the political realm (or, at least, as Romm insists, all
voices that do not deny the legitimate citizenship of others) without
believing that all views must be treated the same; for example, with no
evaluation of their factual adequacy. It is also possible to draw a
distinction between how different arguments should be dealt with in the
field of research and what is appropriate in the political sphere (see
Hammersley, 1995: chapter 6).
- The fundamental questions
about our position underlying Romm's discussion are: Why should
research be defined as the pursuit of knowledge, why can we not define
it in other ways? Is not research simply a matter of what we 'decide'
it to be? And, if so, should we not decide this on moral grounds? The
answer is that the pursuit of knowledge, defined in realist terms, is
unavoidable. We are not free to interpret reality just however we like,
that is part of the meaning of the word 'reality'. Of course,
relativists argue that we can redefine that term as well. But they
could not live by that decision; and relativists keen to insist that
they do live by it should recognise that by insisting on this
they are either abandoning relativism and making a claim about how the
world is independently of their decisions about it or they are simply
redefining 'reality' to suit their own case, so that their argument is
circular. The pursuit of knowledge is one among many activities that
every one of us routinely engages in, and it is an essential feature of
human life. Yet, an implication of Romm's position is that anyone who
claims to have knowledge of the world is acting immorally, because this
excludes possible accounts that others might wish to adopt. Her
position is therefore unsustainable. While we believe that ethical
concerns of the kind with which she is preoccupied, and other moral
considerations as well, must be taken into account in doing research,
for the reasons indicated above they should not be the immediate
goal of researchers, and cannot be so without contradiction.
Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997
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