Firearms / My Experience

On the Ideal of Ethical Neutrality in Research on America’s Culture Wars

I am not sure what it says about me, but in my career as a sociologist, I have been drawn to some of the more controversial issues of my time. What James Davison Hunter way back in 1991 called “culture wars.” Culture wars, according to Hunter, are “struggles to define America,” and have been fought in recent years over the family, education, media and the arts, law, and politics.

Hunter Culture Wars

My earliest work looked at one aspect of the culture wars over education: the struggle to incorporate multiculturalism into the curriculum. I then examined the intersection of religion and politics – two topics to be avoided in polite conversation and potentially explosive when considered together. And now I am studying one of the most controversial and divisive issues of all: guns.

Because my topics are part of ongoing culture wars in America, it is common for people to want to situate me on one side of the battle or the other. From multiculturalism, to religion and politics, to guns, I find myself repeatedly coming back to the question of objectivity in research.

As I noted previously, there is no perfect standpoint of objectivity (“Punctum Archimedis”). As philosopher Leszek Kolakowski once observed, “there is no well so deep that leaning over it one does not discover at bottom one’s own face.” But this does not mean that everything is completely relative and the quest of objectivity should be abandoned.

In the appendix to my first book, I wrote at some length about the ideal of ethical neutrality in research. Re-reading that appendix, I realized that I could with some minor editing, say the same thing about my research on guns as I did about my research on multiculturalism. So what follows is my adaptation of the words I originally wrote back in the late 1990s.

Student Movements for Multiculturalism

The battle over guns in American society is a culture war. The two sides in this battle not only have different positions on guns, they have different views of what American is fundamentally. Much of the discourse over guns, therefore, is shaped by the ideological positions people bring to the debate. Given this reality, in my study of Gun Culture 2.0, am I not simply substituting one ideologically-based analysis for another?

This is a very significant question, and one which I need to address immediately and directly. There is absolutely a difference between my social scientific analysis of Gun Culture 2.0 and the advocacy research of groups like the Violence Policy Center, the applied research of public health scholars like Arthur Kellerman, the journalistic muckraking of Dana Loesch or Tom Diaz, and the like.

The difference is in my aspiration to and the methodical pursuit of “value freedom” or “ethical neutrality” in scholarship. Of course, a full consideration of the question of whether social science is, can be, or should be “value free” is beyond the scope of this work. Whether dealing with important issues of epistemology or ontology, the philosophy of science or sociology of knowledge, such a treatment would fill a volume in itself. I can only briefly offer my own position on the question, one I derive from my engagement with the great German social scientist, Max Weber, and his famous essay on “value freedom” (Wertfreiheit, sometimes rendered as “ethical neutrality”) in the social sciences. [Source: Weber, “The Meaning of ‘Ethical Neutrality’ in Sociology and Economics” (1917), pp. 1-47 in Max Weber, The Methodology of the Social Sciences, Edward Shils and Henry Finch, eds. (New York: Free Press, 1949.]

Weber Methodology Book Cover

Although Weber’s specific concern was with the “sciences of culture” (Kulturwissenschaften), his principles seem to me applicable to all the social sciences which aspire to be empirical sciences of concrete reality, or what Weber called “sciences of actuality” (Wirklichkeitswissenschaften). [Source: Weber, “‘Objectivity’ in Social Science and Social Policy” (1904), in The Methodology of the Social Sciences, p. 72.]

Weber argues for a particular relationship between “facts” on the one hand and “values” on the other. He holds that although “the problems of the social sciences are selected by the value-relevance of the phenomena treated,” these problems “are, of course, to be solved ‘non-evaluatively.’” Social scientists, therefore, should heed “the intrinsically simple demand that the investigator and teacher should keep unconditionally separate the establishment of empirical facts . . . and his own practical evaluations, i.e., his evaluation of these facts as satisfactory or unsatisfactory. . . . These two things are logically different and to deal with them as though they were the same represents a confusion of entirely heterogeneous problems.” [Source: Weber, “The Meaning of ‘Ethical Neutrality,’” pp. 21, 11.]

Thus, while the values and interests social scientists hold necessarily affect the questions we pose, the phenomena we choose to study, and our modes of investigation, these values and interests should not affect our application of widely-accepted protocols for the collection, analysis, and presentation of evidence.

To be sure, these protocols and their enforcement through peer review of work prior to publication are imperfect. Ideologies, we know from Marx, Freud, and other “hermeneuticists of suspicion,” often operate unconsciously or subconsciously, and so the ability of methodology to bracket motivations may be limited. [See: Irving Louis Horowitz, “Social Science Objectivity and Value Neutrality: Historical Problems and Projections,” in Professing Sociology: Studies in the Life Cycle of Social Science (Chicago: Aldine Publishing, 1968), p. 40.]

Hence, ethical neutrality is an ideal we pursue; even Weber himself was not able to attain it. That we pursue neutrality nevertheless is, in my view, a characteristic which most distinguishes social scientific research from journalistic speculation and advocacy. The Violence Policy Center’s “research” on concealed carry killers, for example, would never see the light of day in a peer-reviewed academic journal.

This is not to say that social scientists should never make normative claims, be involved in the public sphere, or seek to influence public policy. Social science, as my teacher at UC-Berkeley Robert Bellah often said, can be a form of “moral inquiry” and “public philosophy.” [See especially the position outlined in the Appendix to Robert Bellah, Richard Madsen, William Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven Tipton, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), a book which itself exemplifies social science as public philosophy.]

But, Weber implores us, in moving from “judgments of fact” to “judgments of value” we must try to be “absolutely explicit” about our movements and intentions (as Bellah is in his work). [Source: Weber, “The Meaning of ‘Ethical Neutrality,’” p. 10.]

Reinhard Bendix (1916-1991)

Reinhard Bendix (1916-1991)

Another UC-Berkeley sociology professor, Reinhard Bendix, provides a useful summary of the position I am outlining when he writes, “Social research is characterized by an interplay between identification and detachment, of subjectivity and objectivity.” [Force, Fate, and Freedom: On Historical Sociology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), p. 28.]

In my case, my identification with the issue of guns came not until my 43rd year of life, when a combination of circumstances led me to learn to shoot a handgun under the guidance of my future wife and a trainer for the state police. From there I had the opportunity to do more fun shooting: plinking with .22 handguns, trap and sporting clays with shotguns, and destroying plastic bottles with a .50 cal rifle. I also came to identify with armed self-defense after a very dangerous encounter with a drug addict and criminal in the parking lot of my apartment complex.

Thus, before I even began studying Gun Culture 2.0, I had already formulated certain answers to questions such as, “What are guns for?” and “Why do people need X/Y/Z gun?” and “Why carry a gun?” I necessarily approach empirical questions about guns with these pre-scientific intuitions and ideas in mind. It is this “value-relevance” which shapes my choice of phenomena to study. But in seeking to understand Gun Culture 2.0, I turn not to speculation or advocacy but to my disciplinary training as a professional sociologist which stresses the aspiration to detachment and objectivity in the analysis of empirical data.

I believed when I began this work a couple of years ago, and I continue to believe, that my distinctive contribution to the question of guns in American society is to examine the issue empirically using established methods of social scientific inquiry. My aspiration in this work was best summarized for me by the late Reinhard Bendix, a Weberian sociologist who I had the good fortune to meet at Berkeley not long before his death in 1991. Bendix referred me to a quote from the philosopher Baruch Spinoza which I will always remember as embodying the social scientific ideal to which I still aspire: “I have sedulously endeavored not to laugh at human actions, not to lament them, nor to detest them, but to understand them” (Tractatus Politicus, i, 4).


2 thoughts on “On the Ideal of Ethical Neutrality in Research on America’s Culture Wars

  1. I admire your efforts at discipline here; for me (I am not an academic, fortunately for academia), I cannot pretend to be objective about this issue. The first time I encountered a bully (and his friends. He always has toadies.), the seeds were sown for how I’d come to think about this issue later in life.

    Playground bullies always seem to exploit power differentials in the way they prey on others: they’re bigger, or they have friends with them, or they simply know that those they prey on are not disposed to engaging in physical combat.

    Everything I have seen in politics, my neighborhood, or the workplace, suggests that this basic process repeats itself in endless permutations. Sometimes in a very soft and velvety way, and sometimes with a truncheon.

    The best attack on guns (I think), is the idea that guns are useless in closing this gap, because it cuts to the heart of the matter for me. It’s not about hunting, or a hobby for me (though it later became a hobby.)

    I believe guns absolutely do close this gap in multiple cases (not all) – for me, anyway, but regardless, in any case: that gap must be closed, and I will make the decision on how best to do that, because the suggestions I’ve gotten from peers over the years have been worse than useless (generally suggesting I ignore or simply submit to any attack.)

    Arguments that the police, or the state will protect me, or that it’s best I just surrender and take the abuse, have always fallen flat, as they have, I am sure, with other gun advocates.

    In any case, this situation winds me up in a way such that I could never undertake an objective study of guns: as a human being, I already have skin in the game. Predatory criminals have guns. Police have guns. The government has guns.

    So, too, I will have guns. And as much as the other side thinks this is a “discussion,” on guns, it’s not. I’m asserting that I’ll have them, and the other side is asserting that…whatever they say they asserting (“common sense regulations,” or, possibly, the outright ban and seizure they’ll admit to wanting when they’re drunk enough and they think no one is listening.)


    • Belated thanks for this comment. You really get at something important in the last paragraph, which makes me wonder sometimes if I am just wasting my time. Time will tell. I do think there are people out there who are not fully committed to one side or the other of the divide, and maybe some of this matters to them?


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