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 WarsMy 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.

I recognize that 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 MulticulturalismThe 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 CoverAlthough 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).

Chris Rock’s Neo-Marxist View of Minimum Wage

facebook_1423479685331_resizedIn my classical theory class we just finished reading excerpts from three of Karl Marx’s most (in)famous works: the Paris Manuscripts, Capital, and the Communist Manifesto.

Marx confidently predicted that the contradictions inherent in the capitalist system would lead to its downfall, as economic crises would get progressively worse over time, making clear to workers their real conditions and leading them to revolt against their oppressors.

For Marx, because the state always acted in the narrow interests of the capitalist class, workers would not see the state as looking out for their interests. One thing Marx did not foresee, however, is various more aggressive interventions by the government to keep economic crises from happening and to mitigate their negative effects when they do. Or the entire system of social provision in which the state redistributes by law resources from the capitalist class to the working class. A.k.a., the social welfare state.

Whether this just amounts to the state having the long-term interests of the capitalist class in mind — saving the capitalist class from its own short-sightedness — is a question for another time. But I thought of this issue when the graphic above appeared on my Facebook timeline.

Like Chris Rock, Marx held that it was in the interest of the capitalist class to keep wages as low as possible, since wages paid are negatively related to profits. But the state intervened to mandate a legal minimum wage, to the short-term detriment but the long term profit of business.

Gun Rights versus Gun Control: On the Need to Understand Sampling Error in Reporting Statistics

Based on a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, we can be 95% confident that the actual gap in American’s attitudes toward protecting gun rights versus controlling gun ownership is as small as 0% and as large as 12%.

Depending on where you stand on the issue, things might not be as bad as was reported (no gap between gun rights and gun control!) or they could be much better than what was reported (12% more favor gun rights than gun control!).

These important caveats got lost amid all of the controversy over this Pew Research Center survey question about American’s attitudes toward protecting the right of Americans to own guns versus controlling gun ownership. (I wrote about this controversy here and here.)

Pew Research reported that in 2014, the scales tipped in favor of protecting gun rights (52% of respondents) over controlling gun ownership (46% of respondents). That result, as well as the trend in responses over the past 20 years, is displayed graphically below.

Pew Research Center Graph on Rights vs Control

Gun rights supporters rejoiced and gun control proponents lamented – the latter even going so far as to petition Pew Research to change the wording of this question. But as Peter Berger said, “the first wisdom of sociology is this—things are not always what they seem.”

We are bombarded so constantly with statistics like these that we often forget (or for some, do not know in the first place) that the results of surveys based on samples are estimates (sample statistics) of the true underlying values in the population being observed (population parameters). Ideally, a sample statistic will match the population parameter, but in the real world that is basically impossible 100% of the time.

Having some idea of how big the gap is between a sample statistic and population parameter is vital to interpreting results like those reported by Pew Research. Unfortunately, in this particular graphic, what is not reported is the survey’s margin of (sampling) error.

However, if you go to the section of the Pew Research site that gives further information about the survey,  you will see that for the total sample size of 1,507 respondents, the margin of error is +/-2.9% — basically 3%.

So, looking at the responses above, what we really know is that the proportion of the population in favor of protecting gun rights could be as high as 55% and as low as 49%, and the proportion favoring controlling gun ownership could be as high as 49% and as low as 43%. (Assuming no other biases or errors in measurement or methodology – about which more in another post.)

So, the actual gap in American’s attitudes on this question ranges from 0% to 12%. Things could be either not as bad as gun control/safety advocates think OR much worse! And things could be either worse than gun rights proponents think OR much better!

Moreover, we are only 95% confident that the sample statistic is +/-3% of the actual population parameter. That means there is a 5% chance that the statistic is off from the actual underlying population parameter by more than 3%. In other words, in 95 out of 100 samples of the same size that are drawn, the survey estimate will be +/-3% of the population parameter. 5 times out of 100, it will deviate more than that.

All is not lost, however. There are more advanced statistical methods we can use to determine the likelihood that a difference we see in survey statistics is “real.” But to just say X% of people believe this and Y% of people believe that based on a survey is very imprecise indeed.

The Pew Research Question “about the survey” section also concludes, “In addition to sampling error, one should bear in mind that question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of opinion polls.” I will take up this issue in a future post.


Sampling error is based on the central limit theory (nice overview from the Khan Academy), which holds that the sampling distribution of any statistic will be normal or close to normal if the sample size is sufficiently large – even if the values in the population are not normally distributed. A normal distribution is sometimes called a “bell curve.” This is fairly well represented in the following graphic from the Web Center for Social Research Methods: