Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997


Hammersley, M. and Gomm, R. (1997) 'Bias in Social Research'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 2, no. 1, <>

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Received: 14/10/96      Accepted: 7/3/97      Published: 31/3/97


Accusations of bias are not uncommon in the social sciences. However, the term 'bias' is by no means straightforward in meaning. One problem is that it is ambiguous. Sometimes, it is used to refer to the adoption of a particular perspective from which some things become salient and others merge into the background. More commonly, 'bias' refers to systematic error: deviation from a true score, the latter referring to the valid measurement of some phenomenon or to accurate estimation of a population parameter. The term may also be used in a more specific sense, to denote one particular source of systematic error: that deriving from a conscious or unconscious tendency on the part of a researcher to produce data, and/or to interpret them, in a way that inclines towards erroneous conclusions which are in line with his or her commitments. In either form, the use of 'bias' to refer to systematic error is problematic. It depends on other concepts, such as 'truth' and 'objectivity', whose justification and role have been questioned. In particular, it seems to rely on foundationalist epistemological assumptions that have been discredited. And the various radical epistemological positions that some social scientists have adopted as an alternative either deny the validity of this concept of bias, explicitly or implicitly, or transform it entirely. We will argue, however, that while it is true that abandonment of a foundationalist conception of science has important implications for the meaning of 'bias' and its associated concepts, they are defensible; indeed, they form an essential framework for research as a social practice. In this context, we shall examine error as a matter of collegial accountability, and define 'bias' as one of several potential forms of error. We conclude by pointing to what we see as the growing threat of bias in the present state of social research.

Bias; Error; Social Research Methodology; Validity

Bias in Social Research[1]

Accusations of bias are a recurrent event in the social and psychological sciences. Some have achieved the status of major public events, such as the attacks on hereditarian theories of intelligence, notably on the work of Cyril Burt (see Kamin, 1974), the response to the Glasgow University Media Group's books on television news (see Harrison, 1985), and Derek Freeman's critique of Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa (Freeman, 1983). Moreover, in many cases, the reaction to an accusation of bias is a counter-charge; indicating that it is not just research itself but also evaluations of research that can be biased.[2]

Despite the frequency with which it is used, the meaning of the term 'bias' has been given rather little attention in the methodological literature. Yet, it is by no means unproblematic. For one thing, the term is ambiguous: it is used in several different ways. We will begin by outlining what seem to be its three main senses.

In the preface to his book on the intellectual left in postwar France, Sunil Khilnani announces that it is 'quite explicitly and in the original sense a biased book: it proposes a new angle of vision, one which brings certain significant patterns into clearer focus' (Khilnani, 1993: p. vii). It should be said that the Oxford English Dictionary does not offer any evidence that this is the original meaning of the word; in fact, it does not mention this sense at all. Nevertheless, the idea that point of view can make a difference to how well one discerns significant patterns in a scene, or in a sequence of events, is a commonsense one. And it has been developed in a methodological context by Max Weber, in the form of his theory of ideal types. Weber defines an ideal type as: 'a conceptual pattern that brings together certain relationships and events of historical life into a complex that is conceived of as an internally consistent system'. And this is not a representation of reality 'as it is', but rather involves the 'one-sided accentuation' of aspects of reality in order to detect causal relationships (Weber, 1949: p. 90).

In Khilnani's terminology, ideal types are biased in such a way as to highlight what we otherwise might overlook. It is worth noting that here bias is seen as a positive feature, in the sense that it is illuminating: it reveals important aspects of phenomena that are hidden from other perspectives. At the same time, the possibility of negative bias remains, this presumably characterizing a perspective which obscures more than it reveals. From this point of view, and we use that phrase advisedly, it seems that bias is an inevitable feature of any account, and its status as good or bad is left open for determination in particular cases.

This sense of the term 'bias' is sometimes used in the literature of social research methodology. Quantitative researchers occasionally employ it, notably in discussions of significance levels (see, for example, Levine, 1993: p. 92). Qualitative researchers also use it. For example, it is often taken to be implied in Becker's influential argument that sociological analysis is always from someone's point of view, and is therefore partisan (Becker, 1967: p. 245).[3] Moreover, the influence of relativist ideas, including those deriving from some of the French philosophers who are the focus of Khilnani's book, has encouraged this usage among qualitative researchers. The effect of this is evident, for instance, in the claim that 'the question is not whether the data are biased; the question is whose interests are served by the bias' (Gitlin et al, 1989: p. 245). Here, the recommendation is that research should be biased in favour of serving one group rather than another.

Of course, this is not the predominant sense of the term 'bias' as it is used in the social sciences, and it will not be our focus here. Instead, bias is generally seen as a negative feature, as something that can and should be avoided. Often, the term refers to any systematic deviation from validity, or to some deformation of research practice that produces such deviation. Thus, quantitative researchers routinely refer to measurement or sampling bias, by which they mean systematic error in measurement or sampling procedures that produces erroneous results.[4] The contrast here is with random (or haphazard) error: where bias tends to produce spurious results, random error may obscure true conclusions.

The term 'bias' can also be employed in a more specific sense, to identify a particular source of systematic error: a tendency on the part of researchers to collect data, and/or to interpret and present them, in such a way as to favour false results that are in line with their prejudgments and political or practical commitments. This may consist of a positive tendency towards a particular, but false, conclusion. Equally, it may involve the exclusion from consideration of some set of possible conclusions that happens to include the truth.

Such bias can be produced in a variety of ways. The most commonly recognized source is commitments that are external to the research process, such as political attitudes, which discourage the discovery of uncomfortable facts and/or encourage the presentation of spurious 'findings'. But there are also sources of bias that stem from the research process itself. It has often been pointed out, for example, that once a particular interpretation, explanation or theory has been developed by a researcher he or she may tend to interpret data in terms of it, be on the look out for data that would confirm it, or even shape the data production process in ways that lead to error. This can arise in survey research through the questions asked in an interview, or as a result of the way they are asked (Oppenheim, 1966). It is also a potential source of systematic error that has been recognized by experimental researchers, with various precautionary strategies being recommended (Rosenthal and Rosnow, 1969; Rosenthal, 1976). Nor does qualitative inquiry escape this kind of bias; indeed it is often thought to be particularly prone to it, not least because here, as is often said, 'the researcher is the research instrument'. Thus, one widely recognized danger in the context of ethnography is that if the researcher 'goes native' he or she will interpret events solely from the point of view of particular participants, taking over any biases that are built into their perspectives.

As will become manifest, even these three interpretations of 'bias' do not capture all of the distinctions that need to be made. Moreover, ambiguity is not the only, or the most serious, problem relating to this term. We will argue that in the case of both quantitative and qualitative research it, and related concepts like truth and objectivity, have tended to be understood in terms of a foundationalist image of the research process. We are not suggesting that either quantitative or qualitative researchers wholly believe in this image, but it has long shaped their thinking and its influence has not been entirely eradicated despite much explicit criticism.

Foundationalism and the Conceptualization of Bias

All concepts form part of networks, and it is on the basis of their relationships with the other concepts involved in those networks that their sense depends. The usage of 'bias' that is our focus here relies on the concept of validity or truth. Bias represents a type or source of error, and in this respect it serves as an antonym of objectivity (in one of that word's senses). These other concepts are, of course, themselves not uncontentious. 'Truth' is a term that is consciously avoided by many researchers, perhaps because it is so often taken to imply the possibility of absolute proof. But, even putting this on one side, the concept of truth or validity is open to competing interpretations.[5] Much the same is true of 'objectivity'. And, in recent years, especially under the influence of constructionism and postmodernism, there has been a growing amount of debate, especially among qualitative researchers, about the meaning of these terms (Lather, 1986 and 1993; Kvale, 1989; Mishler, 1990; Phillips, 1990; Wolcott, 1990; Harding, 1992; Altheide and Johnson, 1994; Lenzo, 1995).

The dependence of conventional interpretations of these concepts on positivist assumptions is a central theme in this literature. And the same charge was directed many years ago at the concept of bias (McHugh et al, 1974: chapter 3). 'Positivism' is a much abused term, however; so much so that its meaning has become elastic. Moreover, the assumptions that are often criticized in discussions of validity and bias are not unique to positivism, in any meaningful sense of that word. For these reasons we will use the term 'foundationalism' to refer to a set of assumptions which seems to be implicated in much conventional usage of terms like 'validity', 'error', 'objectivity' and 'bias'.

In its most extreme form, foundationalism presents research, when it is properly executed, as producing conclusions whose validity follows automatically from the 'givenness' of the data on which they are based. This may be assumed to be achieved by the 'immediacy' of the conclusions or by methodological procedures that transmit validity from premises to conclusions. The sources of 'given data' appealed to by foundationalists are various. They include: innate ideas (Cartesian rationalism), perceptions (empiricism), physical objects (physicalism), observational consistencies (operationalism) and ideational essences (Husserlian phenomenology). The nature of the givenness varies, then; but in all cases the sources of data are treated as independent of, and as imposing themselves on, the researcher. Similarly, conceptions of the nature of any inference involved can vary, for example it may be deductive or inductive. But, whatever its form, it is taken to produce conclusions whose validity is certain, given the truth of the premises.[6]

On this foundationalist view, the course that inquiry should take is clearly defined and, as a result, deviation from it, whether caused by bias or by some other source of error, is also straightforwardly identifiable. Indeed, the research process is seen as self-contained: it relies on nothing outside of it. The implication of this is that if erroneous conclusions occur they must result from the illegitimate intrusion of external factors, notably the subjectivity of the researcher or the influence of his or her social context. What is required to avoid error and bias is for the researcher to be objective; in other words he or she must pursue the research in the way that 'anyone' would pursue it who was committed to discovering the truth, whatever their personal characteristics or social position.

To illustrate this kind of foundationalism, we can use an analogy with a rather bizarre game of bowls, where the position of the jack is fixed and the proper course of inquiry corresponds to a straight- line trajectory of the bowl bringing it into direct contact with its target. All other trajectories display the effects of error or bias. And the fact that one can hit or come close to the jack by means of some of these other trajectories (as one would usually aim to do in a conventional game of bowls) simply indicates that one's conclusions can be correct for the wrong reasons as well as for the right ones.

The problems with foundationalist epistemology have long been recognized by philosophers. They have been explored both by those advancing such a view and by their critics.[7] Forms of empiricist foundationalism dominated Anglo- American philosophy of science from the 1930s to the 1950s, its problems being seen by many as merely technical and therefore as resolvable. However, the consensus amongst philosophers of science today is that foundationalism is indefensible. It is argued that there are no foundational data, and that the relationship between theory and evidence cannot be immediate or deductive, nor is there an 'inductive logic': the validity of theories is always underdetermined (Hanson, 1958; Kuhn, 1970; Gillies, 1993). This collapse in support for foundationalism has led, most dramatically, to the emergence of sceptical and relativist views that either abandon the concepts of truth and error or reinterpret them in ways that are at odds not only with foundationalism but also with the everyday practical thinking of most scientific researchers. It should be noted, however, that much post-empiricist philosophy of science has pursued a more moderate line, exploring and trying to resolve the problems associated with realism (see Hammersley, 1995: chapter 1).

Methodological foundationalism was for a long time a guiding idea for quantitative researchers in the social sciences. And to some extent it continues to be. For example - perhaps as a result of the persistent, if largely implicit, influence of operationism - there is still a common tendency to treat the validity of numerical data as given, despite their constructed character and the sources of potential error built into them (Converse and Schuman, 1974; Schuman, 1982; Bateson, 1984; Pawson, 1989). Furthermore, statistical techniques are sometimes used as if they constituted a machine for transforming data into valid conclusions (Lieberson, 1985; Oakes, 1986; Ragin, 1987; Levine, 1993). This is certainly not to suggest that all quantitative researchers are naive in these respects; but there is a strong tendency for simplistic methodological ideas to survive in practice long beyond the time that they have been consciously abandoned.

Even qualitative research has been influenced by a kind of foundationalism; despite explicit rejection of the validity of quantitative methodological canons, of positivism, and sometimes even of the model of natural science itself. At one time, virtually all qualitative researchers were explicitly committed to the idea that the aim of enquiry is to depict reality in its own terms, independently of the researcher and of the research process; and to the belief that this could only be achieved by close contact with it, for example through participant observation or life history interviewing (Hammersley, 1989 and 1992). This ethnographic 'realism' or 'naturalism' took for granted that there are facts about the world that can be apprehended by immediate experience; though, of course, this was interpreted in pragmatist or phenomenological, rather than empiricist, ways.[8]

Given its influence in both areas, the collapse of foundationalism has much the same consequences for qualitative as for quantitative researchers: it threatens the justification for conventional research practice in both fields. So, the question arises: what response ought social researchers make to the failure of foundationalism? And what implications does the response have for the concept of bias?

There has, of course, been a great deal of criticism of quantitative research for its commitment to positivism; and, in recent years, there has also been growing criticism of older forms of qualitative research for their reliance on realism. In place of the latter, many feminists, constructionists and postmodernists have opted for radical epistemological alternatives. This response has not always been unequivocal, but it is possible to identify two broad types of radical epistemology that have found some support: relativism and standpoint theory.[9] In the next section, we will examine the implications for the concept of bias of these alternatives to foundationalism.

Radical Epistemologies and the Concept of Bias

A characteristic feature of much current methodological writing by qualitative researchers is the deployment of sceptical and relativist arguments. Thus, appeals to 'facts' (and not just to the 'brute facts' of foundationalism) and to 'findings' are sometimes met with accusations of positivism, and/or an insistence that there can be no grounds for claims to universal validity. To the extent that they continue to be used, such words are placed in scare quotes in order to distance the author from the foundationalism that they are taken to imply (see Haack, 1992: p. 16). It is argued that all accounts of the world reflect the social, ethnic, gendered, etc position of the people who produced them. They are constructed on the basis of particular assumptions and purposes, and their truth or falsity can only be judged in terms of standards that are themselves social constructions, and therefore relative. Sometimes, what seems to be involved here is the accusation that accounts which claim universal validity are biased because, despite what they claim, their character reflects the social location of the researcher. But to formulate the claim that all accounts reflect their origins as 'all accounts are biased' is potentially misleading since, as we noted earlier, bias is a source or type of error, and 'error' only retains meaning by contrast with the possibility of truth.

The word 'truth' can, of course, be redefined in relativist terms, so that what is true becomes that which is taken to be true within some community whose members share a particular perspective. Returning to our bowls analogy, a relativist position seems to imply that the jack is wherever a group of bowls players agree to send their bowls. Here, 'error' and 'bias' represent deviations from the truth as consensually defined within a particular community. It is important to note, however, that such truths cannot be used to identify bias in the perspectives of members of other epistemic communities, at least not without self-contradiction. In this context, Kuhn's (1970) argument that different paradigms are incommensurable takes on its full meaning: it simply makes no sense, from a relativist point of view, for a member of one epistemic community to accuse members of another of being biased because their views deviate from what he or she takes to be true, rational etc.[10]

According to relativists, we live in a world of multiple realities. But, of course, the argument that this is the nature of the world itself constitutes a claim to universal validity.[11] This self-undermining internal inconsistency of relativism has long been recognized, and one of its effects is that relativists tend to oscillate between undiscriminating tolerance and ideological dogmatism. At one level, in recognizing multiple perspectives as each true in its own terms, relativism seems to be tolerant of everything. Indeed, there are no arguments within it that could exercise constraint on the proliferation of 'realities'; all that can be challenged are claims on the part of any perspective to universal truth. By contrast, within any community, relativism can be used to justify enforcement of the epistemic paradigm that is deemed appropriate to that community, allowing no scope for internal dissent about fundamentals. All challenges to the paradigm can be met by the response that this is what we as a community believe: 'if you do not believe it you are not one of us'. Indeed, given relativism, there is no other possible response to persistent dissent. And the only viable strategy for dissenters is to frame their disagreement in terms of the construction of a new paradigm, which then itself has immunity from external criticism; though its members are now barred from effective criticism of the epistemic community to which they previously belonged.[12]

Given these problems, it is rare for writers to stick consistently to relativism, other epistemological positions are frequently used to supplement it. One of the main ones is what feminists refer to as standpoint epistemology. This apparently provides a basis for retaining claims to universal validity while yet accepting the argument that the validity of all knowledge is relative to social location. This is achieved by arguing that one particular social location has unique access to the truth. Returning to our analogy with the game of bowls for the last time: according to standpoint epistemology, no straight-line route to the jack is possible, only a bowl with a certain kind of bias can make contact with the jack, given the configuration of obstacles surrounding it (these, of course, representing ideology).

This standpoint approach is strongly modeled on Marxism and thereby on Hegelian philosophy. Hegel conceived of historical development as a process by which, through dialectical change, the distinction between subject and object, knower and known, was eventually overcome and true knowledge realized. And he claimed that, because the historical process had reached its final stage of development in his lifetime, he was in a position to achieve absolute knowledge of the world, in a way that no previous philosopher had been. At the same time, in his Phenomenology, discussing the dialectic between master and slave, he also provided a distinctive version of this philosophy of history whereby oppressed groups have insight into the nature of the world that is not available to their oppressors. Marx developed these ideas into a conception of the development of history as not yet complete, but which could be brought to completion by a proletarian revolution. He argued that since the working class suffer the most intense form of alienation under capitalism, they have a unique capacity to understand it and thereby to overthrow it. Feminists have adopted a similar position, but of course with women treated as the oppressed group occupying a standpoint that provides epistemologically privileged knowledge (Smith, 1974; Hartsock, 1983; Harding, 1983; Flax, 1983).

Within standpoint epistemology there is scope for claims not just about truth but also about bias. However, these can be formulated in different ways. Bias could be seen as an inevitable feature of the beliefs of those who do not occupy the standpoint position: their views of the world being necessarily ideological. Meanwhile, those who do occupy the standpoint would be viewed as not subject to bias, by virtue of their social location. Alternatively, along the lines of our formulation of the bowls analogy, it might be argued that the difference between those who do and do not have the right standpoint is the nature of the bias that their position supplies. Either way, both true and false standpoints are seen as social products, so that whether a knowledge claim is true or not is determined not by whether it has been shaped by the personal and social characteristics of the researcher but by the nature of those characteristics.

This is an argument whose deficiencies were explored many years ago in the sociology of knowledge; where it was labelled 'the genetic fallacy' (see, for example, Hartung, 1952 and Popper, 1966: chapter 23). While standpoint epistemology appears both to allow recognition of the way in which the validity of all accounts of the world is determined by the socio-historical location of those who produce them and to be able to justify claims to universal truth, this is an illusion. Indeed, the most developed version of this position, Hegelian epistemology, shares the same failing as relativism: to the extent that all accounts of the world are socio-historically located and are true or false in virtue of their location, the same must also be true of Hegel's own claim to stand at the end of history. There is no historically neutral or independent criterion by which the validity of his philosophy of history can be established. And it was precisely this feature that left open the possibility of others using the same historicist argument to claim that History would be realized at some different point in its development and in a different way, as in the case of both Marxists and feminists. But, of course, their arguments are also open to precisely the same challenge.

Put another way, the key question is: how is one is to judge the validity of statements about the source of a knowledge claim? This cannot be done in terms of their sources without infinite regress. Both Hegel and Marx sought to avoid this by an appeal to logic or science. And, while not usually making this kind of appeal today, many Marxists and feminists try to avoid the problem by adopting a weaker version of standpoint epistemology, one which allows for the possibility that the working class can be misled by the dominant ideology, or that some women may suffer from false consciousness. Indeed, the standpoint is sometimes treated as consciously adopted rather than as a perspective that is inherited from one's social position. In these weaker terms, no social position is seen as in itself providing access to valid knowledge, it only offers a potential for such knowledge. But, of course, this move effectively undercuts the standpoint argument because knowledge claims are no longer to be judged primarily in terms of their source but according to other considerations. The distinctiveness of standpoint epistemology as an alternative to foundationalism has disappeared. Like all other nonfoundationalist positions, it now faces the problem of how to determine what is true and what is false. And bias, in its original sense, once again becomes a threat to validity that is universal, not restricted to those occupying the wrong standpoint.

As we have indicated, relativism and standpoint epistemology are rarely adopted in pure form. Indeed, what often happens is that they are used in an instrumental way. Sceptical or relativist arguments are applied selectively in order to critique some phenomena or views while others are kept safe from their corrosive effects. Conversely, standpoint epistemology is used to protect particular views through its capacity to disqualify critics on the grounds of their social characteristics. The intended aim of this instrumentalism is often to expose biases arising from the power of dominant groups in society. However, as we have tried to show, neither of these radical epistemological views can sustain a coherent conception of bias, and their selective use amounts to ontological gerrymandering (Woolgar and Pawluch, 1985; Foster et al, 1996: chapter 1).

For the reasons outlined above, we take it that neither of the currently influential epistemological alternatives to foundationalism provides an adequate basis for reconstructing the concept of bias. So, how is the problem to be solved?

A Nonfoundationalist Interpretation of 'Bias'

Given the failure of foundationalism, and the weaknesses of radical alternatives towards it, it is necessary to rethink the issues surrounding truth, objectivity, and bias as these relate to social research. The remainder of our paper is intended to contribute to this as regards the last of these concepts. We noted earlier that while the failure of foundationalism had led to the adoption of radical epistemological views on the part of some philosophers of science, many adopted a more moderate approach, seeking to construct a position centred on a form of realism that avoids the problems affecting foundationalism. This is the sort of epistemological position that we will assume in attempting to make sense of the concept of bias.

We can only sketch this position here.[13] A first assumption is that the distinction between accounts and the phenomena they purport to represent is a viable one; in other words that researchers do not constitute or construct phenomena in the very activity of representing them, in the strong sense that phenomena have no existence independently of accounts of them. However, in formulating this distinction between accounts and the things they refer to it is important not to think of it in terms of language versus reality. Rather, the distinction operates within reality, between particular signs and their referents. Language is part of reality, and so too are the authors of accounts, they cannot stand outside of it. A second point is that researchers do not have direct contact with the phenomena they seek to describe and explain. Their accounts are not simply impressions left on them by the world; nor are they logically derived from such impressions. So, in a weaker sense, researchers do constitute or construct the phenomena they describe, but under the constraint of not producing an account that is at odds with the evidence available about the relevant phenomena. Furthermore, their accounts do not reproduce phenomena in linguistic terms. Rather, they represent them from one or another point of view, defined in terms of particular relevances.[14] The third point is that because we do not have direct contact with phenomena, we have to make judgments about the plausibility and credibility of evidence: about the extent to which it is compatible with, or implied by, what we currently take to be established knowledge, and the likelihood of error involved in its production. The final point is that, in this context, the research community plays a crucial role in subjecting knowledge claims to assessment on the basis of criteria of plausibility and credibility that are generally more sceptical than those operating in other areas of social life; in the sense that they are primarily concerned with avoiding the danger of accepting as true what is in fact false.

An essential element of this communal assessment is consideration of potential threats to validity, that is of sources and types of error. This points to the performative character of the concept of error. Its use involves a calling to account; or, to put it another way, a labelling of deviance. In common with the other terms in the network to which they belong, 'error' and 'bias' form part of an accountability system. Since the community of researchers have a responsibility to do their utmost to find and keep to the path which leads towards knowledge rather than error, the possibility that deviation from it has occurred is a continual preoccupation; since the potential for deviation is endemic.

As we saw, for the extreme foundationalist, bias is a straightforward matter. It is systematic error produced by the influence of presuppositions whose validity is not given, and therefore known with certainty. And its elimination depends on avoiding all such presuppositions. It follows from this that hardly any distinction needs to be drawn between error in the process of research (dependence on false premises etc) and erroneous findings. The first almost inevitably leads to the second; and the second kind of error is an absolutely reliable indicator of the first. Given this, both the findings of research and the behaviour of researchers can be described as biased without this causing confusion. Moreover, systematic error is seen as always a culpable matter, given that it is easily recognized and avoided.

The influence of foundationalism has also meant that a clear distinction is not always drawn between, on the one hand, a researcher having relevant commitments, for example particular political views, and, on the other, these commitments impacting negatively on the research process. Thus, researchers are sometimes described as biased simply because they have commitments pertaining to the field in which research is being carried out. This follows from the idea that the researcher must strip away all his or her assumptions until bedrock is reached, and then build up true knowledge from that foundation solely by logical means.[15]

Once we abandon foundationalism, error becomes a much more difficult and complicated matter. Most obviously, where before we had a procedure by which it could in principle be identified easily and with certainty, this is now no longer the case: judgments about the appropriateness of methods and about the validity of conclusions must be recognized as fallible. Moreover, it is no longer simply a question of whether or not methodological rules have been followed. For the most part, such rules can be no more than guidelines, and considerable judgment is involved in applying them, for example in coming to conclusions about the cogency of the evidence for particular research claims. We also have to recognize that the link between procedural and outcome error is not as tight as foundationalism assumes. Above all, outcome error is not necessarily the product of culpable procedural error.

All this forces us to make a whole range of distinctions that foundationalism ignores (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: A conceptual network identifying types of error

In outlining this conceptual network, we concentrate on procedural rather than on outcome error; and we retain the distinction between systematic and haphazard error. However, the causation of systematic error is understood differently. Where for the foundationalist any reliance on presuppositions whose validity is not given must be avoided, such reliance is now seen as inevitable. In the course of inquiry about some matters, we necessarily take others for granted; and in the absence of a foundation of absolute givens these can only be matters about which we believe our knowledge to be sound but less than apodictic. If we did not make such assumptions, we would have no ground at all on which to stand, and we would lapse into a thoroughgoing scepticism.[16]

However, this procedural reliance on presuppositions whose validity is open to potential doubt does not necessarily lead to outcome error. Sometimes it will take us towards the truth rather than away from it. Judgments have to be made, then, about the validity of presuppositions, though in the absence of any prospect of absolute proof. As a result, the accountability system operating within research communities takes on an even more important role than it does under foundationalism.[17] Moreover, where previously procedural error was a matter of logic, it now becomes deviance from communal judgments about what is and is not reasonable behaviour in pursuit of knowledge, with these judgments being open to dispute and to subsequent revision.

As we saw, the distinction between culpable and non-culpable systematic error does not apply in the context of foundationalism, but it becomes very significant once we abandon that view. Given that all research necessarily relies on presuppositions, none of which can be established as valid beyond all possible doubt, we can never know for sure that a presupposition is leading us towards truth rather than away from it.[18] Colleagues can legitimately disagree, and any researcher may come to change his or her own assessment of the matter. Even more strikingly, what we know now often enables us to see how researchers of the past went wrong, yet without necessarily implying that they should have known better. And in the future others may have this advantage over us, even rejecting our views of our predecessors. The idea of the fully reflexive researcher is a myth. Indeed, it is of course the classic Cartesian myth: the idea that the truth, indeed the whole truth, is available to us here and now if only we can think clearly and logically. But, as we noted, it is not possible to question all one's assumptions at once, and questioning assumptions always involves costs as well as potential gains.

So, given that judgments must be made about which presuppositions are functional and which are dysfunctional for inquiry, both by researchers and by commentators on research, and that these judgments will change over time in light of evaluations of the progress of inquiry, we must recognize that there is always the potential for systematic error, and that some of it will be non-culpable; in the sense that the researcher could not have known that what was being relied on was erroneous or dysfunctional, so that he or she was acting reasonably in the circumstances despite reaching false conclusions. At the same time, some systematic error will be culpable, in that researchers are judged to have been in a position to recognize that an assumption on which they were relying had an unacceptable chance of being erroneous and might therefore lead them astray. In other words, they can be judged to be culpable on the grounds that they did not take proper methodological precautions to avoid error, for example by assessing the relative validity of alternative interpretations.

In short, then, while the abandonment of foundationalism requires us to recognize that research will inevitably be affected by the personal and social characteristics of the researcher, and that this can be of positive value as well as a source of systematic error, it does not require us to give up the guiding principle of objectivity. Indeed, what is essential to research, on this view, is that its exclusive immediate goal is the production of knowledge. Of course, there are all sorts of reasons why people become researchers and persist in this occupation (to make the world a better place, to earn a living, etc). Such motives for doing research can be legitimate. But once researchers are engaged in their work they must be primarily concerned with producing knowledge, not with these other things. While they need to take account of ethical and strategic considerations that relate to other values, truth is the only value that constitutes the goal of research. And it follows from this that systematic error can be motivated by the pursuit of other goals than knowledge, where it would involve the collection, analysis and/or presentation of evidence in such a way as to bolster a predetermined conclusion related to those goals. This is the basis for our distinction between motivated and unmotivated systematic, culpable error (see Figure 1).

Within this framework we could define 'bias' in several different ways. We might, for example, restrict its meaning to systematic, culpable, motivated, error. Alternatively, we could treat this as one form of bias, using the term to refer to all kinds of culpable, systematic error, or even to all kinds of systematic error. There seems little advantage to defining it as all systematic error, since this involves a duplication of terms, and there are other important distinctions to be made. Our own preference is to define 'bias' as systematic and culpable error; systematic error that the researcher should have been able to recognize and minimize, as judged either by the researcher him or herself (in retrospect) or by others. This then allows us to distinguish between motivated and unmotivated bias, according to whether it stems from other goals than the pursuit of knowledge.

It is worth noting that even motivated bias can take different forms. It can be conscious or unconscious, in that the researcher may be more or less aware that he or she is tailoring the inquiry to produce findings designed to serve other goals than knowledge. Here we can distinguish, in principle at least, between wilful and negligent bias. We can also differentiate biased modes of operation in terms of how they handle evidence. At one extreme there is the out-and-out propagandist who will misuse and even invent evidence in order to support some cause. At the other is the advocate or lawyer who uses genuine evidence to make the best case possible for a preconceived conclusion, but within strict guidelines. We should perhaps emphasize that we are not suggesting that advocacy, and perhaps even propagandizing, are never legitimate. Our point is simply that these are not appropriate orientations for a researcher engaged in enquiry, and that the reason for this is that they do not maximize the chances of discovering the truth about the matter concerned, which is the primary responsibility of the researcher.[19]


In this paper we have sought to clarify usage of the term 'bias'. We outlined the ambiguities that surround it and argued that these arise in part from the fact that there has been reliance on a foundationalist epistemology which is inadequate. We also argued that radical epistemological alternatives, such as relativism and standpoint theory, do not provide us with a viable substitute. The conclusion we drew was that some sort of nonfoundationalist realism is essential, and we sketched what a theory of bias might look like in this context. This involved us in distinguishing among a variety of forms of error, and reserving the term 'bias' for culpable systematic error. And we drew particular attention to that form of bias which is motivated by an active commitment to some other goal than the production of knowledge.

We would like to end by emphasizing that our preoccupation with clarifying the meaning of 'bias' is not an idle one. It seems to us that we live in dangerous times for research. There are attempts outside of research communities, on the part of funders, including governments, to define the goal of research in terms other than the pursuit of knowledge. In Britain, this can be seen in the increasing contractual restrictions on research financed by government departments, which seem to be designed to ensure that published findings will support current policy (Pettigrew, 1994; Norris, 1995); and in the growing emphasis on the role of 'users' in the pronouncements of funding agencies, such as the Economic and Social Research Council. The latter organization now requires the research it finances to help 'the government, businesses and the public to understand and improve the UK's economic performance and social well-being' (ESRC Annual Report 1993/4, back cover). At the very least, this looks like the thin end of a wedge.

At the same time, there is also much pressure among researchers themselves, in many areas, to define their goal in practical or political terms. We see this in the demands of some commentators on educational research that it should be designed to serve educational purposes (see Stenhouse, 1975 and Bassey, 1995). We also find it in those forms of social research which are committed to emancipatory political projects, to the fight against sexism or racism or against discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation or disability (see Cameron et al, 1992; Oliver, 1992; Back and Solomos, 1993; and Gitlin, 1994). The radical epistemologies we have discussed are of course often closely associated with these tendencies.

To the extent that such developments amount to redefining the goal of enquiry as the promotion of some practical or political cause, we see them as sources of motivated bias, and believe that they must be resisted by social researchers. They threaten to destroy the operation of the research communities on which the pursuit of scientific knowledge necessarily depends. However, in the absence of a convincing, postfoundationalist understanding of the nature of error and bias in social enquiry we have little or no defence against these threats. Our paper has been designed to contribute to the construction of just such a defence.


1 This article is based on a paper presented at the Fourth International Sociological Association Conference on Social Science Methodology, University of Essex, July 1996. An early version was given as a guest lecture at the University of Southampton in March 1996. Our thanks go to those who asked questions and made comments on both occasions. We are also grateful to Barry Cooper, Peter Foster and Max Travers for their comments on the ideas presented here.

2 For this counter-charge in the case of Freeman's critique of Mead, see Ember (1985).

3 For a discussion of the ambiguities of Becker's argument, see Hammersley (1997a).

4 This usage of the term is the predominant one in many methodological texts. See, for example, Kidder and Judd (1986) and Babbie (1989).

5 For diverse philosophical discussions of the concept, see White (1970), Kirkham (1992) and Allen (1993).

6 It is perhaps important to emphasize that, as formulated here, foundationalism is a pure type. It does not even correspond to the position of the Vienna Circle positivists (see Uebel, 1996).

7 See Suppe (1954) for an account of the collapse of what he calls 'the received view' and the arguments involved. Among the most influential philosophers of science who have put forward nonfoundationalist views are Popper (1959) and Polanyi (1958).

8 This difference is not as great as is sometimes supposed. It is instructive that William James described his position as 'radical empiricism' (James, 1912).

9 Instrumentalism is also sometimes appealed to. For a discussion, see Hammersley (1995: pp. 71 - 2).

10 It might be possible to accuse them of bias in terms of the knowledge and procedures that prevail in their own communities, ie by internal critique; though such a challenge would always be open to the response that outsiders cannot understand the cultures of these communities.

11 Epistemological relativism, the idea that there are multiple realities, needs to be clearly distinguished from cultural relativism, the claim that there are multiple perspectives on, and in, the world which need to be understood. In these terms, we are cultural relativists: we believe that cultural and other kinds of diversity are an empirical fact of considerable importance. What we are rejecting is epistemological relativism.

12 For examples of arguments in favour of relativism in the context of social and educational research, see Smith (1989) and Guba (1992).

13 For discussions of our understanding of what this realism amounts to and its implications for assessment of the validity of research findings, see Hammersley (1990) and Foster et al (1996).

14 This is not a form of relativism because what is presented from the different perspectives must be non-contradictory.

15 The original model here is, of course, Descartes, but this idea can be found across most kinds of foundationalism. For example, in the context of qualitative research methodology, see Glaser and Strauss's (1967: p. 37) recommendation that researchers should not read the literature relevant to their research before they begin the process of analysis.

16 This is the gist of the anti-Cartesian arguments developed by, for example, Peirce and Wittgenstein.

17 This has led one philosopher of science to argue that 'it is a mistake to assume that the objectivity of a science depends upon the objectivity of the scientist' (Popper 1976: p. 95). This is an exaggeration, it seems to us, since the operation of the research community in enforcing objectivity depends on the commitment of individual scientists to that ideal. Nevertheless, like Popper, we see the role of the research community as essential.

18 We leave aside the issue of whether false presuppositions may sometimes be functional and true ones dysfunctional!

19 For this reason, we are in disagreement with those who see advocacy as forming part of research, see Paine (1985), or who recommend partisan research, see for example Gitlin (1994). See Hammersley (1997b).


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