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Maintaining Critical Distance

Phillipa K Chong

What you need to know

The rules for evaluating fiction parallel rules for evaluating scientific fact. Book reviewers of fiction employ four strategies to help them go beyond their idiosyncrasies as readers and produce more objective assessments: recognizing conflicts of interest, maintaining critical autonomy, using evidence-based reviewing, and applying reflexive reading.

What is this research about?

Objectivity is the foundation for legitimate judgements of truth. This can be hard to apply to aesthetic judgements, which are understood to be subjective (i.e., there’s no accounting for taste). This work details how book reviewers validate their own opinions: how they work past their personal preferences as readers and evaluators to produce a general assessment of a book.

What did the researcher do?

The researcher conducted 30 in-depth interviews with book reviewers who worked for several culturally prominent American newspapers. The interviews explored how reviewers determined what good fiction is and how they justify their conclusions in their reviews.

What did the researcher find?

The researcher found that reviewers employ four strategies for managing internal and external sources of bias in their evaluations.  Reviewers evaluating art use approaches that are similar to those used by people making judgment in scientific matters.

  1. Recognizing conflicts of interest:  

    Before agreeing to take on a project, critics must assess if the relationship they have with the author could affect their evaluation. Critics are more concerned with giving unwarranted negative reviews than unwarranted positive reviews.
  2. Maintaining critical autonomy:

     Reviewers are conscious of how factors beyond the book they are reading can affect their judgment.  They try to “control” for outside influences.  This includes reading reviews of the same book written by other critics. Reading other critics’ reviews might encourage a reviewer to change their evaluation to agree, or intentionally write an opposing opinion to stand out.
  3. Evidence-based Reviewing:

     Reviewers are not supposed to just tell readers if they like books.  Reviewers must demonstrate why they came to a conclusion.  Otherwise their credibility and authority are at risk.   Reviewers rely on their emotions and quotations from books as objective evidence for their conclusions.
  4. Reflexive reading: reading like a scientist: 

     Reviewers need to ensure that they are reading critically, and constantly questioning their responses to the text. Reviewers treat their first response to a novel as a hypothesis about the book’s quality. After their initial reaction, however, critics must evaluate if their response was truly an indication of quality. They read the book once as a reader and then again as a reviewer.

How can you use this research?

This research helps shed light on how subjective opinions can become credible.  It helps explain the processes that go into creating an art review and how scientific norms can be seen in aesthetic/artistic worlds.

About the researcher

Phillipa K Chong is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at McMaster University.

Citation

Chong, P. (2013).  “Legitimate Judgment in Art, the Scientific World Reversed?: Critical Distance in Evaluation.” Social Studies of Science. 43 (2): 265-281.

Learn more about Dr. Phillipa K Chong