value-neutral vs. conflict of values

In sociology, it’s common to talk about value-neutral research.  It’s an intuitive alternative to value laden research. We have more credibility if our results aren’t hopelessly biased by our personal or political motivations. I think it’s a useful concept. Even if our choice of research problem is value driven, I would hope that our research tools aren’t contaminated. Some thing like statistical analysis of survey data had better be close to that value-neutral idea.

It was recently argued to me that value-neutral vs. value driven isn’t the only alternative. Good research may come from a conflict of values. In other words, rather than demand that research be performed as if researcher values don’t matter, we should ask that values be made explicit and forced to confront other values via our research.

The conflict of values approach has appeal. The “null” in this conversation can be hard to define, and it may not yield enough guidance about what is important and worth researching. By making our values speak and compete with each other, we have ample opportunities to reflect on what our research is missing, or how it might be mistaken. There is also a chance that our values may change or grow by incorporating insights from other values.  Of course, this assume a minimal level of openness. This isn’t going to work for your local doctrinaire Maoists, but it can be a useful alternative to the value-neutral paradigm.


Written by fabiorojas

November 2, 2009 at 12:36 am

6 Responses

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  1. Am a masters student at leeds university.And i was given this question.Critically evaluate the view that propaganda can best be analysed as a value-neutral form of persuasion.
    And I am wondering why propaganda which is well known to be plainly put as mind fucking should be talked of as being analysed as a value neutral form of persuasion.
    And i realise that i dont understand the concept of value-neutral.Can you give me an insight into it.


    olatubi oluwasola

    November 2, 2009 at 5:25 am

  2. This is a really good post.

    My research combines depth interviews and survey data, typically considered value-nuetral, to evaluate (typically considered left-leaning)social/child welfare programs via the theoretical lens of (typically considered libertarian-leaning) public choice.
    Given what I have learned from fiendishly reading in these two areas, I now consider myself to be a left-leaning libertarian!
    Were your political values changed/revisited … given your research into social movements – particularly research into the Black Power movement.


    Brian Pitt

    November 2, 2009 at 1:49 pm

  3. Brian:

    It’s a good question. This deserves it’s own post, but one thing comes to my mind is my view of nationalist organizations. Before doing research, I viewed nationalism in a negative light.

    After doing the research, I have a more subtle view. Nationalism attracts two behaviors. It attracts people who are very militant and, in many cases, criminal. It also attracts people who want to serve communities that don’t have many resources. Nationalism provides a framework for how you might gather the resources to help under-served communities.



    November 2, 2009 at 6:22 pm

  4. Aren’t “value neutral” or “value conflictual” themeselves values?



    November 2, 2009 at 6:26 pm

  5. What are you? A lawyer?



    November 2, 2009 at 7:34 pm

  6. The way I think about value-neutrality is this: the important thing is that I am trying to answer an empirical question as accurately as I can. Positive questions, rather than normative ones, even if they have implications for each other.

    I guess it would help me to see specific examples of research that comes from a conflict of values.


    Michael Bishop

    November 2, 2009 at 8:51 pm

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