Reliability, Validity, and Objectivity
Objectivity is a concept that has been subjected to a thorough flogging in anthropology following the rise of postmodernist epistemologies. Although I appreciate many of the lessons that derive from hermeneutic and interpretivist perspectives5 and concur that true objectivity is an unattainable goal, I remain committed to the idea that general principles can be induced from particular facts. To further this intention I turn to a qualified definition of objectivity that is quite useful for analytical purposes. Kirk and Miller define objectivity as “the simultaneous realization of as much reliability and validity as possible.” Reliability is “the extent to which a measurement procedure yields the same answer however and whenever it is carried out” or “the degree to which the finding is independent of accidental circumstances of the research.” Validity is “the extent to which it [research and analysis] gives the correct answer” or, stated in another way, “the degree to which the finding is interpreted in a correct way.”6
The issue of objectivity arises in various guises with respect to representations of past Tibetan societies. Elliot Sperling7 provides us with an appropriate illustration. In a critique of some facile portrayals of Tibetan society, he cites a letter written [page 4] in 1662 by the Fifth Dalai Lama instructing Gushri Khan to exterminate rebellious Tibetans and their families. He uses the Fifth Dalai Lama’s advocacy for violent measures to argue,
[W]e can in fact find modern writers projecting current ideas concerning the nonviolence associated with the present Dalai Lama back onto previous Dalai Lamas. This in turn makes it seem as if nonviolence of the Gandhian sort were one of the basic hallmarks of Tibetan Buddhism in general, not only in the religious and philosophical sphere, but in the political sphere as well.8
Sperling’s point relates to my argument that cultural ideals do not necessarily correlate with actions. Buddhism is a religion that emphasizes nonviolence – there is little to debate about this point. Therefore, the claim that Buddhism is a religion that advocates nonviolence is a valid statement based on consistent (reliable) evidence found in scriptures and teachings by clerics. However, the evidence brought forth by Sperling demonstrates that the current Dalai Lama has been more unwavering in his advocacy for nonviolence than some of his predecessors. To project the Fourteenth Dalai Lama’s principles back in time is to allege that all Dalai Lamas acted in perfect accord with their religious ideology – an invalid conclusion that is contradicted by evidence penned by the Fifth Dalai Lama himself.
The next example illustrates how another representation of the Tibetan past suffers from problems of reliability and validity. Much has been written about the remarkable rise of monasticism and the flourishing of intellectual culture in Tibet following the Fifth Dalai Lama’s ascent to power. However, not all depictions of monastic culture are valid. For instance, one scholar claims, “[monasteries in post-seventeenth century Tibetan society] were voluntary mechanisms of population control.”9 At face value, this statement seems unproblematic because the removal of numerous individuals from the reproducing segment of society can negatively impact population growth. However, the statement is based on conjecture and not evidence. Despite claims to the contrary, we are currently ignorant about the size of the Tibetan population at past times. Due to the dearth of reliable data we have no basis to judge whether the population was increasing, decreasing, or stable at any point in history.10 Therefore we are in no position to draw conclusions about the impact that monasticism had on vital demographic rates. Furthermore, the supposition that monasteries were “voluntary mechanisms of population control” can only be validated by evidence that these institutions were established for that purpose in the first place, or by evidence that individuals entered monasteries with the conscious intent of restraining population growth. To my knowledge, no such evidence exists. Even if the practice of relegating high numbers of men to lives of [page 5] celibacy did depress the birth rate in Tibet (which is not necessarily a valid conclusion since female celibacy exerts far more influence on birth rates than male celibacy), claiming that population control was a primary intent of monasticism and not just an unintended (but perhaps not unappreciated) outcome remains an invalid conclusion until evidence is presented to demonstrate the causal connections.
These two examples are used to demonstrate that representing past Tibetan societies is an endeavor that is permeated with uncertainty and subjectivity. Nevertheless, I maintain that we can do a better job by adhering to some methodological principles and by keeping an eye on the issue of objectivity as it has been defined above. The paper will now turn to methods that can enhance our understanding of the interactions between cultural ideals and individual agency.
Note Citation for Page
Geoff Childs, “Methods, Meanings, and Representations in the Study of Past Tibetan Societies,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 1 (October 2005): , http://www.thlib.org?tid=T1217 (accessed ).
Note Citation for Whole Article
Geoff Childs, “Methods, Meanings, and Representations in the Study of Past Tibetan Societies,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 1 (October 2005): 1-11, http://www.thlib.org?tid=T1217 (accessed ).
Childs, Geoff. “Methods, Meanings, and Representations in the Study of Past Tibetan Societies.” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 1 (October 2005): 1-11. http://www.thlib.org?tid=T1217 (accessed ).
- Reliability, Validity, and Objectivity
- A Research Dilemma
- Deviations from the Norm? Or Deviations as the Norm?
- Concluding Remark
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