Reference Work Entry

Encyclopedia of Critical Psychology

pp 2043-2045

Value Neutrality

  • Vivien BurrAffiliated withSchool of Human and Health Sciences, Institute for Research in Citizenship and Applied Human Sciences Email author 


The discipline of psychology has built its reputation on its success in modeling itself upon the natural sciences. This vision of psychology makes the assumption that its theories and methods are objective and value neutral and that our enquiries about the world are free from prior assumptions, vested interests, and subjective interpretations. From the perspective of critical psychology, however, the discipline may be seen as explicitly and, more often, implicitly driven by people or groups with vested interests. Objectivity and value neutrality themselves may be unattainable, and even undesirable, in principle. Value neutrality thus becomes reframed as a potentially dangerous phantasm and psychologists must therefore consider its implications for research and practice.


The idea of value neutrality, or value freedom, implies the existence of a research stance or practice independent from the value system and value judgments of the researcher or practitioner. Value-neutral research is conceived as research which is not biased towards any particular set of values in its inception, design, and execution, or in the interpretation of its findings, but just produces objective facts. Similarly, value-neutral practice would not be influenced by a particular value system in its conceptualization and treatment of psychological difficulties.


Value neutrality; value freedom; objectivity; reflexivity; voice

Traditional Debates

The assumption of and aim for value neutrality in psychology is the norm in research taking place within a positivist, empiricist framework; it is associated with the adoption of the (laboratory) experiment and of hypothesis testing as the preferred design for psychological research, with a focus on objective behavior and with the use of quantitative measures. Although many mainstream psychologists may agree that values are important in decisions about how scientific findings should be applied in the real world, they argue that objectivity and value neutrality in research design and data collection are desirable and achievable goals (for example, see Kimble, 1989). Debates have therefore focused on the usefulness of particular design strategies for achieving them. For example, random sampling, double-blind designs, and standardized measuring instruments are some of the techniques that psychologists have adopted to help ensure that their research is free from the desires, expectations, and assumptions of researchers themselves.

Critical Debates

Critical psychologists not only doubt that psychology has protected itself from vested interests but also that value freedom is in principle attainable or even desirable (see, e.g., Slife & Williams, 1995) and question whether any science or doctrine (not just psychology) can be value neutral. There are several grounds on which critical psychologists have discussed and criticized the value-laden nature of positivist psychological knowledge. These include the need for interpretation of research results (see below), a preoccupation with, arguably often inappropriate, numerical measures (Reason & Rowan, 1981), and the semblance of objectivity and neutrality suggested by these, psychology’s “Eurocentrism”(Howitt, 1991), “colonization” of non-Western modes of thinking (Huygens, 2009) and agenda setting. Agenda setting within any discipline means that some topics are deemed more worthy of attention than others. Those funding research (funding councils, charities, government, and industry) all hold views about what should be researched, in what way, and why. Their explicit and implicit values inevitably exert a major influence upon research projects and subsequent publications. It may also be argued that the very content of the discipline of psychology is heavily determined by the values and assumptions of its professional bodies.

Critical psychologists suggest that objectivity and value freedom in the design and conduct of research are impossible goals since no person is free to see the world from anything other than their own position in it. Scientists are themselves human beings who are members of a particular culture or society and may not be consciously aware of some of the values and assumptions they tacitly hold. Their choices of research questions and methods of enquiry are to some degree inevitably guided by these values and assumptions. In conducting research, mainstream psychologists have often drawn their participants from quite narrow social categories, often reflecting their own social group. In the USA, for example, college students have been overrepresented in psychological research and encouraged by the practice of requiring psychology students to take part in their professors’ research; behind this lies the tacit assumption by academics that people similar to themselves represent and cover the breadth of human psychology. In a similar vein, the experience and behavior of white, middle-class men have often been implicitly adopted as the standard against which the rest of humanity is to be judged. This is well illustrated in contemporary concerns over the validity of intelligence tests (Cernovsky, 1997; Mackintosh, 1998), and critiques of other forms of psychological testing have been put forward by feminists (Lewin & Wild, 1991). The response of critical psychologists is a general plea for reflexivity (Parker, 2005), i.e., that the researcher should actively reflect upon his or her own values, biography, and location in the research process, explicitly reporting on this when writing up the research.

Moreover, even if research data could be gathered in an objective way (an epistemological stance which critical psychologists in principle put in question), psychologists must still interpret their results, and there is no way of ensuring that their interpretations are free from the values and assumptions implicitly held by researchers and by those who review their work. Parker (1999) refers to this as the “interpretative gap.” The research process as conceptualized and practiced within mainstream psychology is one that inevitably, and often even intentionally, privileges the interpretation of the researcher over that of the participant. The unequal relationship between researchers and participants was one of the concerns fuelling the “crisis in social psychology” (see, e.g., Armistead, 1974) in the 1960s and 1970s and has led to a concern among critical psychologists to provide an opportunity for the participant’s “voice” to be heard (see Jackson & Mazzei, 2009) and a preference for qualitative methods. However, such concerns have themselves prompted further debates among critical psychologists about the possibility and possible pitfalls involved in reflexively addressing these concerns (Henwood, 2008); is it possible to achieve a truly egalitarian relationship with participants or faithfully represent their views? The status and prestige of science encourage participants to subject themselves to the “expert knowledge” of psychologists; although qualitative methods allow that participants’ actual statements can be included in the research report, the researcher must still code and interpret their accounts and make decisions about what quotations to include. In this way, the researcher’s “reading” of the material is privileged. There is also concern over what values the research should represent. If research cannot be value free then researchers need to consider the values they wish to underpin their work, and this in turn raises questions how such judgements should be made. Such issues have been thoroughly debated within feminist “standpoint” theory (see Pilcher & Whelehan, 2004, for a brief overview).

Practitioners in psychotherapy and related fields face related problems: their theories and practice are also laden with social and cultural values and assumptions. Critical psychologists question, for example, whether what is thought of as “normal” behavior in western industrialized societies should be used as the standard against which to judge the behavior and experience of people from other cultures (see, e.g., Maracek & Hare-Mustin, 2009). They hold that contemporary treatment approaches such as psychodynamic theory, humanistic psychology, and cognitive behaviorism, developed in Europe and North America as they were, inevitably bear the influence, and thus the values and worldview, of the cultures and social strata from which they arose.

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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014
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