About Credibility and Inherent Biases

The American sociologist Howard S. Becker introduced for the first time in the social sciences the notion of “hierarchy of credibility,” in his paper, Whose Side Are We On? (in Social Problems vol. 14, no. 3, 1967, pp. 239-247). He explained that in any structured group, the people who are, in some way or another “above” other people, are considered to have access to more information than the ones “below” them. Thus, the latter individuals have less credibility than their “superiors” because they are less informed. In his words, “We are, if we are proper members of the group, morally bound to accept the definition imposed on reality by a superordinate group in preference to the definitions espoused by subordinates” (p. 241).

The paper is also significant because it was one of the first to draw attention to the inherent biases found in any type of research. Whenever we study something, we inevitably put our conscious or/and subconscious thoughts and convictions into it. “We can never avoid taking sides,” says the author. “So we are left with the question of whether taking sides means that some distortion is introduced into our work so great as to make it useless” (pp. 245-246). There will always be biases, according to the political/social/personal inclinations of the researcher. The solution, according to Becker, is to “always look at the matter from someone’s point of view” (p. 245). In order to have an honest, if not totally objective study, we must state our beliefs from the start, and say from which point of view we conducted our study.

In the conclusion of his paper, Becker presents us what he felt to be the ideal approach for scientific research: “We take sides as our personal and political commitments dictate, use our theoretical and technical resources to avoid the distortions that might introduce into our work, limit our conclusions carefully, recognize the hierarchy of credibility for what it is, and field as best we can the accusations and doubts that will surely be our fate” (p. 247).

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