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Objectivism is the notion that an objective reality exists and can be increasingly known through the accumulation of more complete information. Objectivism is thus an ontology (the world exists, is real), and an epistemology (knowledge can increasingly approximate the real nature, or quality, of its object -- that is, knowledge can become increasingly objective). Objectivist epistemology presupposes an objectivist ontology -- in order to objectively know the world, there must be a real objective, definite world. (The inverse relation is not necessary -- it is theoretically possible that a real world exists but cannot be known objectively because human perception is biased, for example.)

The relation between objectivist ontology and epistemology is best articulated by the philosophy of science known as critical realism. Mario Bunge explained that this perspective keeps the seventeenth-century distinction between the thing in itself and the thing for us (as known by us). But critical realism drops Kant's thesis that the former is unknowable and that the thing for us is identical with the phenomenal object, i.e., with appearance. Critical realism maintains that the thing in itself can be known (in a gradual fashion). Things are too grand and complex to be known through the senses; they can and must be known by conceptual thinking objectified in scientific theories.


Objectivism in psychology

Objectivism is a perspective adopted by certain practitioners in all the social sciences. In the field of psychology -- which shall be used to illustrate the principles -- objectivist ontology means that psychological phenomena -- such as emotions, perceptions, reasoning, intelligence, memory, motivation, personality, developmental processes, and mental illness -- are real and have definite properties and causes. At a given moment, I have a real anger at my brother because I interpret his action to have been willfully selfish and I recall that this is a typical behavior on his part that I have decided I cannot tolerate any longer. My memory, reasoning, interpretation, decision, and anger are real and they have definite qualities. A psychologist, a policeman, a judge, or layperson such as my brother, who wants to understand my psychology must objectively comprehend the real, objective qualities of my psychological phenomena.

Objectivist ontology and epistemology are reflected in objective descriptions of phenomena. This is known as semantic realism. Whatever the organization of a people's psychology may be (which may be complex and contradictory), this definite, real form must be denoted in a truthful description.

Ontological, epistemological, semantic, and methodological realism require each other. Denying any one of them undermines all the others. For instance, denying semantic realism -- by severing discourse from knowledge about reality, and claiming that contradictory statements about psychology are equally true and useful -- implies that there is no ontological psychological reality that needs to be reflected in discourse. If ontological reality exists and affects us, then it would be foolhardy and dangerous to ignore it in our discourse.



Ontological, epistemological, and semantic realism/objectivism yield universal theories, thinking, methods, explanations and descriptions.

Since a psychological phenomenon has a definite reality -- which may be complex and contradictory -- all descriptions must strive to apprehend it. My anger at my brother incorporates cognition, memory, interpretation, and contradictory feelings of kinship, however this entire package is one package which must be described and explained in one true and complete account. It cannot be described equally completely and accurately by different accounts. An account that said I truly loved my brother but was afraid to admit it would be inaccurate. Of course, accounts may describe different aspects of the complex whole, but they must all be consistent with each other to represent the real unity of my psychological package.

A given psychological reality unifies/universalizes the theory, epistemology, mentality, and methodology of all those who would comprehend it.




A plurality of contradictory theories, methodologies, and epistemologies cannot exist for an extended time, because they cannot all explain and describe the single reality of the organization of psychology equally well. Freudian notions of the Oedipus complex cannot co-exist with behaviorism to explain my anger toward my brother. As Albert Einstein said, at any given time, among competing theories, methodologies, epistemologies, and conclusions that constitute the stock of accumulated knowledge about a particular phenomenon, one is the best (most comprehensive, logical, predictive) way to comprehend its single reality.

Diverse viewpoints are important for generating novel ideas that eventually are sifted out to yield the most comprehensive, logical, coherent, and empirically verifiable one at a particular time. The best one commands general agreement because all observers are striving to comprehend the same, definite object. Diversity and pluralism are stepping stones to general validity and agreement. They are not goals in themselves; nor do they constitute a state of scientific achievement.

One is not objective simply because one entertains a diversity of perspectives. On the contrary, maintaining a diversity of perspectives precludes discovering the best representation/approximation of the single reality that confronts us. It is objectively the case that automobile manufacturers contribute to global warming by resisting ecological-friendly improvements in cars (e.g., mileage standards). If someone tries to balance this fact by insisting on a different perspective that automobile manufacturers bear no responsibility for global warming, their pluralism and balance have destroyed objectivity.

Of course, diverse viewpoints reappear whenever established theories, methodologies, and conclusions are questioned. But no sooner do they reappear, then they are again sifted to yield more valid, agreed-upon constructs.


Objectivism-realism, Psychological Science, and Communication


Ontological, epistemological, and semantic objectivism-realism are fundamental to all science. There can only be a psychological science, for example, if psychological phenomena are real and can be objectively known (to an increasing degree). If you deny objectivist ontology or epistemology you have renounced the possibility of psychological science. If psychological phenomena are not real and have no definite properties, or if humans cannot objectively know these properties, then there can be no scientific study of psychology.

Denying objectivism not only precludes psychological science, it also precludes informal understanding and communication about psychology. My brother could not understand my anger-reasoning-memory-interpretation because either these would not be real and definite, or because his epistemology (like all humans') would be incapable of knowing my psychology. I might say I felt angry, but if my anger was not real this would just be idle discourse on my part. Or, I might really feel angry, but my brother would be under no obligation to understand this because epistemology simply cannot comprehend psychological phenomena, even if they are real. Denying objectivist ontology and/or epistemology means that nothing meaningful can be said about social psychological issues. Comments about them would be nothing more than idle utterances that express nothing real.



Challenges to Objectivism-realism and Psychological Science


Social constructionists and post-modernists advocate this kind of anti-realist, anti-objectivist position. They claim there are no substantive psychological phenomena. Instead, people construct their psychologies as they discourse with one another. Psychology is nothing more than momentarily created discourse about psychological themes (such as desire, emotion, thinking, motivation, recall). Conversely, discourse about psychological phenomena is nothing more than discourse. It does not refer to real phenomena that can be objectively known (see subjectivism in this Encyclopedia).

Social constructionists and postmodernists raise three challenges to objectivism and psychological science.


    1) Psychological phenomena are socially constructed and culturally specific; they are not universal. Consequently, different epistemologies are necessary for apprehending different phenomena. To study "saving face" in Taiwan requires a special epistemology that is different from studying romantic love in California. In other words, ontological relativism leads to epistemological relativism. This perspective repudiates universal epistemology on the grounds that it would overlook culturally unique features of psychology. A unique phenomenon is only intelligible to an epistemology and methodology that are specifically honed to its qualities.

     Epistemological relativism here means that different epistemologies are necessary in different cultures. This relativism is not an inclusive welcoming of diverse epistemologies into a culture to gain varied insights from each. It is an exclusionary, divisive relativism which only accepts one epistemology -- the indigenous one -- as appropriate in a given culture, and banishes other viewpoints to other cultures.


2) The observer is inextricably formed by his distinctive cultural outlook to understand only the culturally relative phenomenon of his niche. His formation precludes him from understanding the subtle, complex psychology of people outside his niche. Thus men are banned from commenting on "women's issues", and whites cannot comment on blacks because they lack the appropriate cultural epistemology.

The distinctive cultural formation of researchers also precludes them from endorsing a single  general theory and methodology that transcend their indigenous cultures.


3) The ontological relativity of psychological phenomena (emotions, perceptions, mental illness, self-concept, intelligence) means they are unreal, indefinite, ineffable, inexplicable, random, spontaneous, idiosyncratic (i.e., beyond the pale of general cultural psychological principles) and open to numerous, impressionistic, interpretations, descriptions, and explanations from diverse methodologies. This is the argument that ontological (cultural) relativism entails ontological and epistemological nihilism. This argument denies cultural-psychological reality and denies it can be (really) known. Girishwar Misra, an Indian indigenous psychologist, echoes extreme constructionists such as Ken Gergen in claiming there is no objective reality which psychologists have to map, and examine the accuracy of that mapping with the objective reality.

Nihilists say that all epistemologies and methodologies are equally acceptable in all situations because there is no objective reality that would make any more useful than any other. Theories and methodologies are purely a matter of personal preference -- "whatever works best for me."


Objectivist rebuttals to constructionism


Objectivists have used these challenges to  refine objectivism, not deny it.


1) Ontological relativism does not imply ontological, epistemological, semantic, or methodological nihilism

With psychology, for example, the fact that a people's psychology is culturally constructed and specific does not mean it is unreal, indefinite, ineffable, inexplicable, random, spontaneous, idiosyncratic (i.e., beyond the pale of general psychological principles), and open to numerous, impressionistic, interpretations, descriptions, and explanations. Culturally organized psychology is real and has definite features which are independent of the researcher who studies it -- just as the powers accorded to a president, a judge, a policeman, a CEO, or a landlord are real, definite, objective, and powerful although they are humanly constructed and accepted. Ontological relativism (the culturally relative organization of psychology) is compatible with ontological, epistemological, and semantic realism. John Searle aptly said, the denial of External Realism, typically in the form of idealism is the ultimate bad faith of philosophy because it arrogantly arrogates to each individual the power to fashion the world as he or she wishes.

Actually, most relativists are realists, not nihilists. They believe that culturally relative psychology is real and can be objectively known with culturally indigenous epistemology.


2) Ontological relativism is consistent with epistemological, semantic, and methodological universalism

A culturally specific psychological phenomenon does not require a distinctive epistemology or methodology that is only available inside the culture. The researcher must certainly acquire knowledge about the phenomenon's particular content through understanding the culture. But this is far different from claiming that a culture-bound epistemology and methodology are necessary for comprehending the phenomenon.

This point may be illustrated by a comparative example from biology. An ornithologist who visits a new ecology has to learn about different anatomies of birds that are specific to particular ecologies. But her way of comprehending them does not change. She uses a general theory about the factors that form bird anatomy, and she uses established research procedures and cognitive processes (logic, analysis), to understand the anatomy of these particular birds. In other words, she applies general theories and procedures to elucidate the distinctive properties of specific species. The specific content of this species' anatomy does not require a distinctive epistemology and methodology for comprehending it. In fact, any local epistemology and methodology that did not utilize generally accepted principles would fail to explain the local birds' anatomy.

 The same is true for psychological phenomena. Their content is culturally specific and variable, but general theoretical, epistemological, and methodological principles are necessary to identify culturally specific content. Without them, indigenous understandings will be deficient.

Outsiders can understand the subtle, complex cultural-psychological meanings of a foreign people. Searle aptly observed that I can understand the beliefs people have without sharing them. Anthropologists routinely understand the emotions, thoughts, perceptions, reasoning processes, self-concept, mental illness, and motivation of people very different from themselves. Moreover, they convey their understanding to readers of their works who are even further removed from the indigenous culture.

These second and third order understandings (removed from the first order of indigenous people themselves), are made possible by the human capacity to represent particular events and experiences in general (cultural) symbols that are understandable by other people who have not participated in the event of experience. Symbolic language developed to enable people in different positions to communicate information that was not directly experienced. A hunter in one location could communicate in general symbols (words) to a hunter in another location what he had seen (e.g., a band of deer heading toward the second hill), so that the second hunter could gear his action toward this event he did not experience. Robert Merton explained that denying that one person can understand the experience of another is to deny social existence and communication.


3) Culturally embedded scientists can produce and agree to universal science.

Psychologists can objectively comprehend the psychology of diverse people by undergoing scientific training that teaches them general principles and methodologies that are applicable in any setting. Natural scientists undergo similar scientific training. Regardless of their cultural backgrounds and indigenous beliefs about physical phenomena, they all learn the scientific vocabulary of their discipline (atoms, molecules, genes, germs, cells, gravity, thermodynamics, sound waves) that have proven to more accurately describe and explain their subject matter than their indigenous beliefs did. Since science is more objective and accurate than indigenous beliefs, scientists renounce the latter and adopt the universal conceptual system that best explains their subject matter.

Exactly the same is true for social scientists. All cultural psychologists, for example, can come to agree on scientific cultural psychological concepts that explain the culturally organized psychology of people. Scientific cultural psychology transcends the culture (cultural psychology and relative epistemologies) of its practitioners just as natural science does.

The social constructionist/indigenous psychology contention that all thought processes are restricted to the conditions of their birth is wrong. As Searle  says, the mistake is to suppose that because all facts are stated from within a culture and a point of view, that therefore the facts exists only relative to a culture, a point of view, an 'interpretive community'.


Objectivism and Qualitative Methodology


Objectivism is a central tenet of qualitative methodology. It is not only a tenet of positivism.

Positivists and many qualitative methodologists, alike misconstrue objectivism as antithetical to qualitative methodology. Positivists take this opposition as repudiating any value to qualitative methodology. Many qualitative methodologists applaud the opposition between qualitative methodology and objectivism because they regard objectivism as an impersonal, reified, distorting concept that discounts the subjectivity of subjects and researchers. In this view, validating people's subjectivity requires eschewing objectivism.

These two positions both err in accepting positivistic objectivism as the only true objectivism. In fact, it is possible to investigate social psychological phenomena objectively in a manner that is sensitive to complex, social psychological issues. An objective qualitative methodology dissolves the positivistic objection to qualitative methodology, and it dissolves the post modern objection to objectivism.

There is a strong objectivist, realist tradition in qualitative methodology. Wilhelm Dilthey, for example, believed that psychological phenomena such as meanings could, and should, be objectively ascertained through a rigorous, scientific procedure of Verstehen. Verstehen is not an expression of the researcher's spontaneous, personal subjectivity; it is a systematic analysis of other peoples' meaning. Dilthey emphasized that hermeneutic interpretation of meaning could/should have Allgemeingultigheit, or general validity, because it was objectively apprehended and could be demonstrated to, and accepted by, all interested parties.

Dilthey explained that hermeneutics had this objective from its beginning. It arose in the Greek enlightenment as a method for interpreting and critiquing Homer. Hermeneutics became more sophisticated during the second and third centuries B.C. The literary heritage of Greece was gathered in libraries, and the Alexandrian philologists sought to identify and discard inauthentic texts. They developed strict rules for identifying style, content, inner coherence, and meanings. These rules had to facilitate objective interpretation of the texts to determine which were authentic and which were not. This strict application of hermeneutics led to excising the last books of the Iliad and the Odyssey because they could not have been authored by Homer. Dilthey observes that hermeneutical methods were necessitated by a struggle over different interpretations. The struggle made it imperative to develop rigorous rules to justify one's interpretation as more valid than the opposition's.

Hermeneutics took another leap during the 16th  & 17th centuries in order to provide an accurate/correct interpretation of classical religious texts, and the Bible. Protestant theologians sought to invalidate the Catholic interpretation. To do so they elaborated essential rules for interpretation. The rules had to culminate in convincing arguments that would validate the Protestant viewpoint and undermine the credibility of Catholicism.

Objectivism in qualitative methodology underlies the development of specific analytical, interpretive procedures such as grounded theory and phenomenology.



Objectivism and Human Fulfillment


Objectivism is indispensable for human fulfillment because it reveals reality and necessity that people have to deal with in order to fulfill themselves. Objectivism is imperative because the way we understand and deal with the world has life and death consequences. Life and death consequences follow from whether there really is global warming; whether cholesterol heightens the risk of heart attacks; whether poverty leads to impaired cognitive functioning; whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction in 2003; whether psychosis is due to social stress; whether an elderly person is incompetent to make medical and financial decisions about/by herself; and whether your spouse loves you. Humanizing life requires being objective about these things. Denying objectivism -- which is fashionable among some who call themselves humanists (e.g., social constructionists, postmodernists, philosophical idealists) -- obscures real conditions, factors, principles, processes, and problems that debilitate us, and that need to be transformed in specific new directions. Objectivism is humanism, and anti-objectivism/anti-realism is anti-humanism.


Carl Ratner



See also Subjectivism





Further Reading




Bunge, M. (2004). How does it work? The search for explanatory mechanisms. Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 34, 182-210.



Bunge, M. (2001). Scientific realism. Amherst, NY: Prometheus   books.


Dilthey, W. (1985). The rise of hermeneutics. In Dilthey, W., Hermeneutics and the study of history (pp. 235-258). Princeton: Princeton University Press. (Originally published 1900).


Einstein, A. (1954). Ideas and opinioin. New York: Bonanza.


Merton, R. (1972). Insiders and outsiders: A chapter in the sociology of knowledge. American Journal of Sociology, 78, 9-47.


Niiniluoto, I. (1999). Critical scientific realism. New York: Oxford University Press.


Ratner, C. (1997). Cultural psychology and qualitative methodology: Theoretical and empirical considerations. N.Y.: Plenum.


Ratner, C. (2002). Cultural psychology: Theory and method. New York: Plenum.


Ratner, C. (2006a). Cultural psychology: A perspective on psychological functioning and social reform. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.


Ratner, C. (2006b). Epistemological, Social, and Political Conundrums in Social Constructionism. Forum for Qualitative Social Research, 7, 1, article 4:


Searle, J. (2006). Reality and relativism: Shweder on a which? hunt. Anthropological Theory, 6, 112-121.