What is objectivity? Discussing academic bias

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The demonisation of non-white cultures: or how textbooks don’t replace people

Academia. Often told to be non-personal and so objective you wonder if these people have ever had an opinion in their life. Sometimes that’s an issue when the subject you are studying is so connected to human society. For example, sociology.

As a sixth-form student, we were talking about world religions in a ‘feminist’ viewpoint and my teacher said something I wanted to add context on. This was a white, Christian man talking about Hindu culture in a way many POC can probably recognise and roll their eyes at – he was playing devil’s advocate (or at least that’s what it amounted to.)

We were talking about menstruation and how that kind of blood is seen as cursed and I put my hand up to talk about the origin and the context of the practise of disallowing a woman into the temple during her period. A lot of the time they were far away and up giant hills and that amount of movement in the time before pain medication would have been cruel.

I told him what my mother had said when I asked her about where this stuff had come from; she said it came from women spreading those rumours, so they’d get a break from all the household duties they had to do on top of period symptoms and that’s not absurd.

My teacher looked at me like I’d grown two heads and then laughed and said my mum had sugar-coated it for me. The academic who had studied human society didn’t believe that women were capable of that, because of course men had to do it to women because otherwise there would be no basis in saying this bit of Hindu culture was inherently misogynistic. This being despite the fact that only one of those religions said periods and childbirth was a punishment explicitly.

And this isn’t a bit of human culture we’ve lost anyway: think about the phrase ‘what can the patriarchy do for you?’ It’s mostly used tongue in cheek now, but women needed to survive in any way they could and spreading rumours that your period blood was bad luck is mild compared to other things I’ve heard about.

Since the textbook gave a different explanation, my opinion as someone actually in the culture was ‘wrong’ and I think that is a problem with a lot of sociology. We were taught to be so objective that having any sympathy or understanding to the culture was treated like it was prejudicial. The actual phrase in the methodology textbook was ‘going native’ which is a horribly racist term in the first place, since it implies that of course ‘natives’ don’t know a thing about their own culture and therefore should be studied like zoo animals.

But ultimately, being ‘objective’ by believing in a textbook written by old white men over even discussing the topic with an insider in that culture shows more bias than the other way around.

And no, opinion pieces don’t count. 😉

Words by Ashna Nadesan

Sub-edited by Sumaiyah Akhtar

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