Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997


Hammersley, M. and Gomm, R. (1997) 'A Response to Romm'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 2, no. 4, <>

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Received: 27/10/97      Accepted: 12/12/97      Published: 22/12/97

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 than epistemology.

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.


FISH, S. (1994) 'There's no such thing as free speech, and it's a good thing too' in S.Fish There's No Such Thing as Free Speech, and it's a Good Thing Too. New York: Oxford University Press.

HAMMERSLEY, M. (1995) The Politics of Social Research. London: Falmer.

HAMMERSLEY, M. (1997) 'A reply to Humphries', Sociological Research Online , vol. 2, no. 4, <>.

HAMMERSLEY, M. and GOMM, R. (1997) 'Bias in social research', Sociological Research Online, vol. 2, no. 1, <>.

HUMPHRIES, B. (1997) 'From Critical Thought to Emancipatory Action: Contradictory Research Goals?', Sociological Research Online, vol. 2, no. 1, <>.

ROMM, N. (1997) 'Becoming more accountable: a comment on Hammersley and Gomm', Sociological Research Online, vol. 2, no. 3, <>.

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997