Subjectivity Essay

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Subjectivity is a concept that opposes the methodological possibility of a disembodied objective perspective and works to explicate the emergence of the reflexive actor in society. The extent to which sociology can or should detach itself from the actor’s subjective experience, and even whether subjectivity is itself illusory, is highly contested and essential to sociology’s self-identity.

Subjectivity rejects the possibility of a position independent outlook of the world and stipulates that all knowledge is knowledge from particular points of view. There are four main avenues through which subjective value judgments could permeate sociology: (1) the selection of problems (2) the determination of the contents of conclusions (3) the identification of fact and (4) the assessment of evidence (Nagel’s 1961 essay: ”The value-oriented bias of social inquiry”). Charles Taylor (1971) argued in the seminal essay ”Interpretation and the sciences of man” that subjectivity is absolutely unavoidable for sociology, although social relations rest on intersubjective rules and the sharing of a common world. He suggested we are bound by a hermeneutic circle when engaging in sociology (or any other social science) because it is impossible to appeal to verification through ”brute data,” as in the natural sciences, to verify claims. Instead, one must rely on value-based intuitions.

Relatedly, subjectivity has come to be understood as undermining the traditional view of a consistent, stable and autonomous self as sole author of interactions with other selves and a description of the external forces that come to construct the subject. The supposed philosophical illusion of an integrated self was challenged, in particular, by four separate, but sometimes interdependent, movements of thought: Marxism, Psychoanalysis, Structuralism, and Feminism. Marxists outlined how the modes of production produced false consciousness; Psychoanalysts revealed a fragmentary unconscious of irrational impulses; Structuralists, like Levi-Strauss, Lacan and Althusser developed the linguistic analysis of de Saussure to reveal how underlying anthropological, psychological and state structures were formative influences on the subject; Feminism illustrated how the subject was engendered in a society dominated by patriarchal norms.

These efforts themselves came to be criticized for implicitly attempting to liberate a ”real self” behind a veil of socio-structural influences. Foucault’s intention, arguably, was to show this subject as a discursive fiction constructed in a power nexus. As such, the subject is, in fact, another remnant of the Enlightenment tradition, which allows normative appeal for a unified, autonomous, rational self. Thus, without the foundations of tradition or reason, the subject dissolves into an overwhelmed post-modern spectator of a hyper-real social environment, a playfully pastiche consumer of late capitalism.

Anti-subjective arguments have been heavily criticized for their methodological, empirical and normative shortcomings. Taking stock of the dramatic technological and cultural changes of recent decades, there has been a re-evaluation of what processes of subjectivity are still relevant to our understanding of the reflexive subject. Structural inequality has emerged as a particular focal point. Accordingly, feminist standpoint theory, whereby each subject is a situated knower in a system of particular social relations, is providing invaluable theoretical and methodological resources. Drawing upon these, for instance, a realist theory of identity has been developed, as represented in Alcoff and Mohanty (2006) Identity Politics Reconsidered, which rejects the thesis that the subject is a mere fiction but positions subjectivity against essentialism in recognition of anti-subjective concerns.


  1. Foucault, M. (1984) The Foucault Reader, ed. P. Rabinow. Penguin: London.
  2. Harding, S. (2003) The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual and Political Controversies. Routledge: New York.
  3. Martin, M. & MacIntyre, L. C. (1994) Readings in the Philosophy of Social Science. MIT Press, Boston, MA.
  4. Taylor, C. (1971) Interpretation and the sciences of man. In: Martin, M. & MacIntyre, L. C. (eds.) (1994) Readings in the Philosophy of Social Science. MIT Press, Boston, MA.

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