“Reality” as a Claim for Justice — by Beth Mertz
In these oddly jaded times within the social sciences, it is interesting how controversial a claim to be capturing “reality” can be. Of course, this is not surprising. One of the key jobs the social sciences can perform is to keep us from too easily accepting commonly accepted “truths” that are in fact false, or perhaps just very dubious or impossible to prove. Even the very positivist field of forensic psychology at times sounds oddly postmodern in its denial of any fixed “truth” – we know a lot more about what can cause false identifications or memories than we know about accuracy, as if there are no accurate eyewitness identifications or memories of abuse. Again, there is a good reason for some of this: we now know that many people have been unjustly jailed, even sent to death row, based on false identifications and evidence. At the same time, reading this literature, one sometimes feels a sense of vertigo, as if these hard-nosed empiricists have actually given up on there being any accurate memories or actual “reality” that happened at all – although of course, their own work depends on their own abilities to remember and code and identify some kind of empirical “reality” with accuracy – as does so much of the fabric of social life.
In the more qualitative areas of social science, as in my own home field of anthropology, this discomfort with identifying “truths” and fixed realities has reached high levels – again for very good reasons. Too often the “realities” fixed by cross-cultural encounters have been based in the self-serving perceptions of Westerners engaged in colonial or post-colonial adventures designed to impose their norms (and profit-margins) on people with less power but much wisdom, so frequently ignored and lost in the transactions. The realization that anthropology itself had been complicit in these impositions froze the field in its tracks in many ways, and plunged it into a sometimes-productive, sometimes-infuriating phase of epistemological questioning. (I may be prejudiced, but I do think that this phase has left the field well-placed to help in the cross-cultural translation processes now becoming so ubiquitous in an era of concern with the “global.”) Again I just note that while questioning is very important, if we generate only critique, we are unlikely to be able to contribute to activist attempts to improve the frequently very dismal situations being studied – and this ought to raise some ethical issues for us.
Moving then to law, that very applied arena of social studies, it is perhaps surprising to encounter yet more agnosticism about “reality” – and I can only repeat, once more for terrific reasons. What other field has the awesome task of deciding the fate of accused human beings, of jailing them or even killing them? In the hands of legal decision-makers can rest the fates of businesses and churches; of children, abused women, the wrongly accused, and the mentally ill. When juries or judges find “facts,” on the way to making decisions, they are ringed around with procedures that limit the scope of their inquiries – in a sometimes successful, sometimes terribly wrongheaded effort to keep out factors that are deemed wrongly prejudicial or inflammatory, and so forth. This means that the truth that emerges from legal decisions can never claim to be the “actual reality,” but only the “facts” as framed very particularly in this legal proceeding.