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Subjectivism and subjectivity



Subjectivism is a certain way of conceptualizing subjectivity. Subjectivity is what makes us subjects rather than objects. Subjectivity includes processes denoted by the terms mental, mind, conscious, experience, agency, will, intentionality, thinking, feeling, remembering, interpreting, understanding, learning, and psyche. These subjective processes comprise the activity of subjects. Without subjectivity, we would only be physical objects devoid of activity.

Subjectivity is understandable if we see how it develops over the phylogenetic scale. Lower animals' behavior is devoid of subjectivity. It is a direct, immediate association of a response with a stimulus. The response is determined by a biological program known as an instinct. More advanced animals progressively develop subjective processes that mediate between stimuli and responses and increasingly determine the animal's response to stimuli. Subjectivity reaches its highest form in humans who think, plan, remember, feel, dream, imagine, anticipate, symbolize, decide, understand, learn, and initiate action on a level that is far more sophisticated, complex, and active than any animal's. Subjective functions determine how we react to stimuli. Stimuli themselves do not directly determine our reaction, as they do in lower organisms.

For subjectivity to mediate stimuli it must be different from them. This justifies examining it as a particular order of things, a distinctive phenomenon. This is what subjectivism does. It examines the interiority of subjectivity, the active processes that are subjectivity and which determine behavior.

Subjectivism is one conception of subjectivity. Subjectivism construes subjectivity as the product of the subject, or individual. In this view, what we think, imagine, feel, remember, expect, understand, and strive for are entirely the product of ourselves. Subjectivity may utilize worldly things, but always on its own terms, for its own purposes, according to its own processes and laws.


Subjectivism in The Humanities and Social Sciences


Subjectivism has been the dominant view of subjectivity in many fields of scholarship.

Rene Descartes and Bishop Berkeley expressed the core notion of subjectivism. Descartes proposed that mind is distinct from body and world and is a realm of its own. Berkeley expressed this in his classic statement that the world is as I see it. My perception does not represent the world. Rather, the world is an expression of my subjectivity. The processes and principles of my subjectivity determine how I see the world; the world does not influence my perception of it. The direction is entirely from inside my mind to the outside world.

Immanuel Kant similarly proposed that subjectivity cannot know the world because the two are separate domains. Subjectivity contains its own intrinsic laws, such as ethical principles, that structure one's perception of the world.

Historical discussions, especially intellectual history, often present events as the unfolding of ideas that are freely decided by people. One hears that "the prevailing outlook changed from a focus on national construction to a more international outlook." Philosophies, legal concepts, and marriage customs are thought of as exclusively rooted in thinking, perception, desires, motivation, and reasoning apart from conditions, structures, and resources.

     Subjectivism is also a strong tendency in a branch of sociology known as micro sociology. Erving Goffman proclaimed his work to be micro-sociological because it studied face-to-face social interactions. These he defined as interpersonal, face-to-face environments. His work is not about social organization and social structure which are the traditional concerns of sociologists. Anthony Giddens perceptively explains that Goffman¹s main concern throughout his writings involves individuals directly attending to what each other are saying and doing for a particular segment of time. Even when individuals are group members, their interactions are to be understood in terms of an immediate interpersonal encounter, not in terms of their membership of the group.

    Goffman is not interested, for example, in the role of a doctor in relation to the wider medical community. His focus on face-to-face encounters leads him to concentrate on such interpersonal dynamics as mutual eye contact, body space, and details (³moves²) of the conversation act such as turn taking (timing), silences, and volume of speaking. This conversation analysis lacks a relation to the existence of social institutions including the power relations of who owns and controls them.

Subjectivism is also characteristic of many spiritual doctrines. Hindu Yoga, for example, is a systematic method of physical postures and breathing exercises to help concentrate thoughts on a single object to systematically reduce the diversity and rate of flow of thoughts till it comes to a near stop. At this stage, a practitioner of Yogic techniques is said to withdraw attention from the object of thoughts to thought itself and further on to the self-as-subject at the centre of the universe of experience. Drawing attention completely to the self-as-subject epitomizes subjectivism.



Subjectivism in Psychology


Subjectivism takes various forms in the discipline of psychology.

Jerome Bruner believes that culture is symbolic meanings. He says that social realities are not bricks that we trip over or bruise ourselves on when we kick at them, but the meanings that we achieve by the sharing of human cognitions. In Bruner's world, we do not encounter and are not bruised by armies, wars, inequality, abuse, exploitation, pollution, global warming, power, poverty, wealth, disease, the world bank, congress, the CIA, immigration quotas, emigration restrictions, or prisons. These are not real things "out there in the world" which directly affect us. They are simply meanings which become negotiated through interpersonal communication. We can readily change these concepts by simply renegotiating them with our colleagues.

Reducing social reality to symbolic meanings is subjectivism because it construes subjective experience as a self-contained realm.

Jaan Valsiner espouses a subjectivist view of agency. Formerly an advocate of Lev Vygotsky¹s sociohistorical psychology, he now asserts that culture is a set of "suggestions" which individuals can freely accept, reject, or modify as they wish. Valsiner replaces sociohistorical psychology with a new formulation called "co-constructionism." In contrast to sociohistorical psychology which construes the individual as profoundly affected by culture, co-constructionism grants primacy to the individual's decision about how to deal with culture. Acknowledging that his new position is a wholesale rejection of sociocultural psychology, Valsiner says that the logic of the argument supporting the relevance of the social environment in human development is reversed in the co-constructionist paradigm. According to the new paradigm, "most of human development takes place through active ignoring and neutralization of most of the social suggestions to which the person is subjected in everyday life" (Valsiner, 1998, p. 393, emphasis in original).

Valsiner even contends that babies construct their own personal goals. They utilize culture as an instrumental means for achieving their own goals; they do not adapt themselves to established culture as social scientists formerly believed.


Subjectivism in Qualitative Methodology


Subjectivism dominates qualitative methodology. It construes interactions between researcher and subjects (through interviews in particular) and the active interpretation of data -- which are central features of qualitative research -- as a license for the free exercise of subjective processes. The subject is free to express whatever subjective idea he or she desires, and the researcher is free to subjectively interpret data.

The subjectivistic tendency in qualitative research (which is contradicted by an objectivistic tendency that is described in the entry on objectivism) claims that the world, including the psychological world of subjects, is unknowable. Consequently, the researcher constructs an impression of the world as he or she sees it, without regard for whether this subjective impression corresponds to any reality beyond. The researcher's subjectivity is a world unto itself, which is the classic definition of subjectivism. Validity and objectivity are irrelevant issues here, as is methodology. There is no point developing a rigorous methodology to apprehend and measure psychological reality because it simply does not exist. Qualitative research, in this view, consists in researchers developing and comparing their own accounts of psychology.

 This subjectivist approach to qualitative research is expressed by Ken Gergen's statement of social constructionism/postmodernism: "There is no means of declaring that the world is either out there or reflected objectively by an 'in here'" (Gergen, 2001, p. 805).

The constructionist is not, then, interested in truth as a scientific outcome—or at least truth with a capital "T"—a universal or transcendent propositional network. There may be local truths, established within various scientific fields, within the various communities of humankind, and these must surely be honored from within the traditions of these communities. However, the future well-being of the world community depends on facilitating dialogue among these local traditions. Declarations of truth beyond tradition are, in this sense, a step toward tyranny and, ultimately, the end of communication (Gergen, 2004).

To tell the truth, on this account, is not to furnish an accurate picture of what actually happened but to participate in a set of social conventions ...To be objective is to play by the rules within a given tradition of social practices ...To do science is not to hold a mirror to nature but to participate actively in the interpretive conventions and practices of a particular culture. The major question that must be asked of scientific accounts, then, is not whether they are true to nature but what these accounts ... offer to the culture more generally" (Gergen, 2001, p. 806). "A postmodern empiricism would replace the 'truth game' with a search for culturally useful theories and findings with significant cultural meaning (ibid., p. 808). Arguments about what is really real are futile (ibid., p. 806).

A strand of feminism amplifies this by repudiating the notion of a real world of phenomena that can and should be objectively apprehended. Instead science is equated with the subjectivity of researchers. These feminists denounce scientific objectivity as nothing more than a political ideology that is promoted by men to oppress women. For instance, Liz Stanley & Sue Wise (1983, p. 169) assert that objectivity is "an excuse for a power relationship every bit as obscene as the power relationship that leads women to be sexually assaulted, murdered and otherwise treated as mere objects. The assault on our minds, the removal from existence of our experiences as valid and true, is every bit as questionable." Stanley & Wise agree with Gergen's position that "there are many (often competing) versions of truth. Which, if any, is `the' truth is irrelevant. And even if such a thing as `truth' exists, this is undemonstrable" (Stanley & Wise, 1983). This position is subjectivistic because it places the subjectivity of researchers at the center of things, and denies worldly phenomena apart from the researcher's subjectivity.

Subjectivism in qualitative research additionally accepts subjective accounts of subjects about their psychology as the object of research. The objective is to validate subjective interpretations, meanings, and understandings. This line of research does not seek to explain subjects' subjective accounts in terms of external influences. For this would deny originality and agency to subjects' subjectivity. Nor does this line of research seek to evaluate subjects' subjective accounts by comparing them to other sources of information -- such as other people's accounts of the same psychological phenomenon. Subjectivistic research would not compare a child's account of her experience with her parents' account of her experience -- e.g., the child says she was unhappy five years ago and resented her parents, while the parents show photographs of the child appearing very happy with them. For this kind of comparison too would challenge the originality and agency of the subject's subjective account. It might prove that the subject misinterpreted her experience or some other event. External data is eschewed by subjectivistic research because it transcends the pure subjectivity of the agent.

Howard Garfinkel's ethnomethodology, for example, abstains from judging peoples' statements as to their accuracy, adequacy, value, importance, necessity, practicality, success, or consequences. It only refers to conditions outside individuals when they do. If subjects do not mention social conditions, they are not introduced by the researcher. Thus, even if a person objectively fits the category of lower class (because of her education, occupation, income, family background), she must be regarded as middle class if this is how she subjectively sees herself.

These features of subjectivistic research are illustrated in a study by Dorothy Holland on the ways in which college girls experience romantic love. From interviews, she reports that some girls pursue romantic love enthusiastically while others are ambivalent and others reject it. One girl, Sandy, sought romantic love but had trouble establishing the kind of relationships she wanted with men. She also learned that a potential boyfriend from back home was involved with someone else. So she took a stronger interest in friendships and developed a special friendship with one person. Another girl, Karen, tried to make herself more attractive by suggesting to her boyfriend that she had many other suitors. Holland explained these strategies as based on personal decision-making processes that the subjects employed: These strategies were ones the women themselves had improvised or decided to use. Holland explains the subjects' approaches to love as stemming from personal traits such as their identification of themselves as romantically inclined and skillful. She does not indicate social reasons, models, values, or practices that might have influenced the subjects to adopt these strategies for dealing with love.

Discourse analysis, or discursive psychology, is another approach to research that is strongly subjectivitistic. It typically treats speech acts as spontaneous constructions that reflect individual agency and constitute subjectivity. This is subjectivistic because it construes subjectivity and discourse as spontaneously created worlds in themselves, uninfluenced by external events. Indeed, social phenomena are treated as discursive products; speech is not regarded as denoting worldly events. Culture and psychology are created by people as they speak; they do not stand over people and influence them. While certain discourse analysts do link discourse to cultural influences, many treat it as an entirely subjective process free from external influences or evaluation.



Evaluation of subjectivism


Subjectivism contributes to our understanding of human subjectivity/psychology because it emphasizes the active role that these play in generating behavior. Subjectivism prevents us from regarding people as mechanical, empty responders to stimuli -- as behaviorism, positivism, and artificial intelligence presume. Subjectivism corrects the widespread tendency in psychology to mechanically associate independent and dependent variables, with no consideration for subjects' active interpretation, comprehension, anticipation. It also corrects social reductionism -- discussed in the entry on objectivism -- which reduces psychology to social structures.

Yet this contribution of subjectivism comes at a price. Emphasizing subjective activity so strongly and exclusively overlooks social and natural influences on subjectivity/psychology.

Subjectivism eschews the criterion of validity (objectivity, and truth). This is dangerous because invalidating the notion of validity prevents invalidating invalid conceptions and conclusions. Invalidating validity validates invalidity.

A balance can be achieved by acknowledging the activity of subjectivity along with social constraints that shape it. For example, in forming personal identity. individuals are highly active in the process of self-making, however, the materials available for writing one's own story are a function of our public and shared notions of personhood. American accounts of the self involve a set of culture-confirming ideas and images of success, competence, ability, and the need to `feel good'. Although making a self appears to be an individual and individualizing pursuit, it is also a collective and collectivizing one.

Cultural influences, content, and function can be seen in psychological phenomena. They can be seen in Karen's approach to love that Holland recounted earlier. Karen's strategy of enhancing her attractiveness by exaggerating her appeal to numerous men bears striking resemblance to a principle of free market economics -- namely, that increased demand drives up the value of a commodity. Businessmen often exaggerate the demand for a product in order to enhance its attractiveness and increase its price. Employees often exaggerate the number of job offers they have, or could have, in order to raise the value of their salaries. From Holland's brief description, Karen evidently imported this common business practice into her personal world of romantic love.

Subjectivity is permeated by cultural content, it is not a self-contained realm. This follows from the fact that subjectivity is oriented toward the world and laden with worldly content. Subjectivity enhances the organism's comprehension of the world and its ability to plan effective action within it. A self-contained subjectivity that created itself ex nihilo without any basis in or regard for the world, would be of little service to the organism.


Carl Ratner



See also: Objectivism, social constructionism, methodological individualism-holism



Further Readings




Branco, A., & Valsiner, J. (1997). Changing methodologies: A co-constructionist study of goal orientations in social interactions. Psychology and Developing Societies, 9, 35-64.


Bruner, J. (1982). The language of education. Social Research, 49, 835-853.



Gergen, K. ( Sept. 2004). 'Old-Stream' Psychology Will Disappear With the Dinosaurs! Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, Volume 5, No. 3, Art. 27 (online journal).


Gergen, K. (2001). Psychological science in a postmodern context. American Psychologist, 56, 803-813.


Giddens, A. (1987). Social theory and modern sociology. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Hammersley, M. (2003). Conversation analysis and discourse: Methods or paradigms? Discourse & Society, 14, 751-781.


Holland, D., Lachicotte, W., Skinner, D., & Cain, C. (1998). Identity and agency in cultural worlds. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.


Oyserman, D., & Markus, H. (1998). Self as social representation. In U. Flick (Ed.), The psychology of the social (pp. 107-125). New York: Cambridge University Press.


Ratner, C. (2007). Cultural psychology and qualitative methodology: Scientific and political considerations. Culture and Psychology, 13,



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


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


Stanley, L., & Wise, S. (1983). Breaking out: Feminist consciousness and feminist   research. London: Routledge.



Valsiner, J. (1998). The guided mind: A sociogenetic approach to personality. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.