‘At least they have a job’ : Objectivity, social sciences & my research

In the last six months that I have been researching work in gig economy in Bengaluru I have had to revise my idealism and those social science theories that I carried from university. First among the clutch of idealistic beliefs to chip off has been about social science research serving the society. In the current academic climate it appears as though it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what one finds, because these findings are contested tooth and nail by others who find something else studying the same phenomenon.  The process goes on and on, year after year while research and academic careers get made along the line. Nothing or very little translates into action that leads to a sliver of change in situation of the very lot whose situation the research problematised to begin with. 

The second belief that stands dented is about nature of objectivity, especially in social science research. I made a switch from fundamental science and lab experiments in biotechnology, to social science and realize that it was easier and in a measure more rewarding to pursue scientific research than social science research. Can a social phenomenon be objectively studied? Before this question, what is objectivity? Assuming it implies a bias-free, unconditional attempt at studying a phenomenon which is also free from emotional predisposition, to arrive at a fair assessment of cause and consequences, then we end up describing an impossible process. I have come to understand that every claim of objectivity is in fact an assertion of the researcher’s own values as normative and on which research must be staged.

These thoughts struck as I went on the daily delivery round from the warehouse of the ecom company, carrying packages of goods bought by customers online. Their worlds constantly collided with my world as a Delivery Boy carrying those packages, because of the way these worlds were structured and how we performed in these. Off work, when I discuss observations about the nature of this delivery job, how tiring and exhausting it is, the poor wages etc, I get a range of responses. There are those who agree that these are shit jobs which need to improve through legislation, regulation, social policy etc. Then there are those who find this normal. ‘What is wrong with these gig jobs?’; ‘One has to work hard!’; ‘At least they have a job.’ are some of the responses. Earlier, I would have called these perspectives. But after these months of work and research in gig economy, perspective seems an inadequate label. 

In a discussion on Amazon’s second headquarter and its effect on the city, my friends questioned the need for subsidies and incentives that the host city is offering and how this isn’t really a free market situation. On the other side, I wondered if economic stimulus is what the host cities are looking for, rather desperately. Connecting to my experience working as a delivery boy and exploring the socio-economic backgrounds that workers in these jobs come from, I see versions of desperation everyday. These are men in need of and looking out for jobs. There aren’t any in their hometowns. They take the trains and buses or ride their motorbikes to the cities, searching for them. Then, before the money in their pocket runs out they need to find a job. The city can’t let them down. It just can’t. On and through a variety of considerations, at least the cities manage to entice corporations and they bring some jobs with them. As it looks from the below, the view is grim.

There are problems with these jobs, mainly of low wages, workplace conditions and social security. To social scientists and political scientists, this is capitalistic growth which will never deliver on societal values of justice, equity and growth for all. My friend argues that one must talk of jobs destroyed by capitalistic growth than jobs created. This may make sense for academic exploration, which has its own place, but how does it help or bring even a faint relief to thousands of gig workers who outperform themselves everyday just to take home enough money while the VC money in the venture lasts and their job contracts last? 

This is only one aspect of the conflict I see in social science research i.e objectivity. Extending out from this are the narratives which is the staple of research in feminism, race and identity. In the absence of any contemporary directions in this area, I draw from Max Weber’s explanation of the process and nature of social science research in his Methodology of the Social Sciences. When I began writing this piece, my intention was to only share this brilliant articulation by Weber. Reading it, I felt it may be relevant to reflect briefly on my time in social sciences since university. 

In the following lines Weber writes of the limits of social science – 

 It may be asserted without the possibility of a doubt that as soon as one seeks to drive concrete directives from practical political (particularly economic and social-political) evaluations, (1) the indispensable means, and (2) the inevitable repercussions, and (3) the thus conditioned competition of numerous possible evaluations in their ‘practical’ consequences, are all that an ’empirical’ discipline can demonstrate with the means at its disposal. Philosophical disciplines can go further and lay bare the ‘meaning’ of evaluations, i.e., their ultimate meaningful structure and their meaningful consequences, in other words, they can indicate their ‘place’ within the totality of all the possible ‘ultimate’ evaluations and delimit their spheres of meaningful validity.

Weber asserts that social sciences is an empirical discipline. Therefore, it will only be able to do so much as help researchers derive directives, highlight repercussions and assemble all the possible competing evaluations of the phenomenon under study. Philosophy may take it further by delving into meaning of these evaluations and their validity. Nothing more. What follows, is remarkable, because this speaks directly to the issue of objectivity and to the discussion on looking at jobs created vs jobs destroyed. 

Even such simple questions as the extent to which an end should sanction unavoidable means, or the extent to which undesired repercussions should be taken into consideration, or how conflicts between several concretely conflicting ends are to be arbitrated, are entirely matters of choice or compromise.

Matter of choice or compromise, is what it boils down to, for Weber. It was almost a revelation for me, because I have always held that on methods in social sciences and its purpose, Weber’s writing always have an answer. Ending this remarkable trail of commentary on social sciences, Weber adds – 

The social sciences, which are strictly empirical sciences, are the least fitted to presume to save the individual the difficulty of making a choice, and they should therefore not create the impression that they can do so. 

If not a possible direction through my quest to understand gig economy, revisiting Weber’s writing at least points to the fact that social science doesn’t save us the difficulty of making a choice. That, may be, this is what it boils down to – making choice, from the evaluations produced from social sciences. 

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