Is the use of ‘I’ acceptable practice in doctoral writing? I often get asked this question, as do most people who talk about writing. I’ve been asked this a lot again recently, so I thought it might be worth posting an answer. My answer in short is yes – and maybe no – and maybe it’s not the question.
The use of the first person in academic writing has now become much more accepted. However, doctoral researchers need to check the regulations at their university and discuss the question with their supervisor. This is because some disciplines and some universities still do not allow it. But, some disciplines work to the contrary. They DO use a convention of ‘I’, particularly at the beginning of the dissertation where the doctoral researcher writes about their motivations for researching the topic and their connections with it. In these instances, failing to write an introductory ‘I’ section might mean being told by examiners to go back and do it.
The use of ‘I’ was once seen as poor academic writing and poor research. It was said to indicate a researcher suffering from a lack of objectivity. An ‘I’ writer could not detach themselves from their research and therefore their work was bound to be biased. Third person writing gave the ‘right’ impression of detachment and objectivity.
It’s helpful to remember that the use of ‘I’ has not always been the matter of personal choice and convention it now seems to be. It was a hotly contested issue not so long ago.
A little more than two decades ago, feminist scholars for example argued that the use of the third person in academic writing was a masculinist strategy intended to create the impression of an objective view that did not exist. Instead of resorting to what Donna Haraway (1988) described as a ‘god trick’, in which the researcher appears nowhere and everywhere via the use of the third person, it was imperative to explicitly situate the researcher in the text. If the reader could find out about the research writer, then they could make judgments about the situated and particular nature of what was being offered to them. One way for the researcher to make herself visible was through the use of the first person. The use of ‘I’ allowed the reader to understand that the research was a social construction, just like any other form of knowledge.
This epistemological argument is now fairly widely accepted – the ‘I’ is seen as a reasonable form of academic writing and does not mean that the researcher has not conducted their research properly. The understanding that research is never neutral is now so taken for granted in many disciplines and locations that it may well seem out of step to be arguing and writing otherwise.
And there are now also legitimate forms of research which focus simply on the researcher themselves. You can find examples of personal inquiry throughout the social sciences and humanities – self study, autobiography, autoethnography and so on. There are journals largely devoted to the political/personal dimensions of research: Auto/Biography and A/B, for example. These all use first person writing within specific genres of self-study.
But understanding research as situated does not equate to simply writing as an ‘I’. When it comes to research writing, confining the personal to a matter of pronouns is a mistake. If, as Haraway and countless others have argued, the research enterprise cannot be separated from the researcher, then the question of the personal and the tangle of researcher and their research is not resolved by simply advocating or abhorring the use of I/we.
And I want to say in addition, here and now, that it’s almost impossible to get the researcher out of their text. Writing in the third person doesn’t do it.
If you look back to the last post on hedging, then you will see that the researcher inserts themselves in the text through their use of evaluative judgments of others’ work and of their own. Whenever we write that we or someone else ‘clearly shows’, or ‘suggests’, or ‘demonstrates’ or ‘generally indicates’, then there is – behind these third person words – a researcher making a decision. Even without the ‘I’, there is a researcher writing.
While it’s possible to apparently write yourself out of the text by writing without an ’I’, this is actually hiding behind the hedges. Researchers taking this option – avoiding writing in the first person – can still be located by those who know how to spot them lurking in the text.