writing with ‘I’ is subjective – and that’s OK

This is a response to the posts that have recently appeared on patter about writing in the first person (here and here). It comes from Alex Seal. Alex is a first year PhD student and graduate tutor at the University of Surrey in the Sociology department. His research interests centre on the choices students make in regard to their higher education and his PhD explores why UK students choose to study abroad. Alex is also deeply interested in research methodology, particularly the objective/subjective divide.

Reading Pat’s recent post on writing in the first person with ‘I’ brought back personal experiences writing undergraduate essays, postgraduate essays, and currently my PhD. I have always been fascinated with the views of others when it comes to writing in the first person. In my (albeit limited) experience of the academy I have already come across those in my own discipline (Sociology) who label it ‘bad practice’, those who ‘don’t mind it’, and those who ‘actively promote it’. As a PhD student writing, researching, and teaching, I have always, and will continue to, remain within the ‘actively promote it’ camp.

I agree that writing in the first person with ‘I’ is linked to issues in objectivity. But the hostility of some towards it also serves to remind us that the objective/subjective divide within the social sciences is alive and well, with objectivity maintaining a subtle supremacy in research and writing.

This is because labeling the use of ‘I’ as “bad practice” reinforces a view of the social sciences that distancing yourself within the research is both possible and desirable. But this objective conception of research is simply not achievable – For ethnographers, it is the researcher who recreates ‘images’ of the people, settings, and interactions for the reader to interpret. For qualitative interviewers, it is the researcher who takes snippets of the interview data and effectively becomes the biographer of their participants. However, and this is so important, the objective/subjective distinction is not something that is restricted to qualitative research.

Quantitative researchers choose the variables for analysis and how their data sets are used. Similarly the statistical tests used on quantitative data are often named after their creators, thus demonstrating that these tests are human creations set in values and particular ways of thinking – SPSS can therefore never be an autonomous instrument that ‘uncovers’ the reality of social life.

The key point here then is that data does not speak for itself. It is we as researchers who interpret and organise our findings, proceeding to speak through it. So the argument that the ‘researcher can affect the research’ is an argument that cannot exist because we are ‘involved’ in our research from the moment we choose a topic through to coding, analysis, and the write-up process.

Some would argue these views are not new or revolutionary for the social sciences. I agree to some extent. However, if the view I have presented was widely accepted, I cannot see how anyone could object to writing with the ‘I’. Perhaps the only logical argument against it is that any mention of the researcher as ‘I’ is seen as subjectivity triumphing over objectivity. And this inevitably goes back to objectivity as THE way to do ‘real’ science, whilst subjectivity is seen as something that hinders that goal. But as I have shown, our subjectivity is not something that affects the research but actually shapes it.

If we can begin to recognise (and embrace!) our subjectivity as an integral part of our research, the use of ‘I’ in our writing can begin to clear the mist and show our readers how our subjectivity and values have contributed to the end result of research. This is vaguely what Stanley and Wise (1993) have called ‘accountable knowledge’ and I am in full agreement with them that good research is about demonstrating how the process (the things we do and the way we do them) affects the product (the knowledge we present at the end of our research).

Going forwards in my own PhD studies, I am firmly committed to writing with the subjective ‘I’. I maintain this view firstly because it is related to my own epistemological position that knowledge is never neutral and that the subjective is not the ‘demon’ of our research (see Letherby, 2012). Secondly, my supervisors often ask me to make the arguments I am trying to make clearer. Therefore, if they are my arguments (situated amongst the literature), I see little merit in smoke screening my writing in an attempt to distance myself from MY points and how I have arrived at them. Most importantly, however, is my conviction that replacing ‘I’ with ‘the researcher’ (i.e. the researcher believes…, the researcher thinks…) is actually just an attempt to hide behind an outdated conception of objectivity that does not exist. Crucially though, replacing ‘I’ with ‘the researcher’ really, really does not work in attempting to distance yourself from your research. As I (and Pat) have suggested, you are ‘in it’ regardless of whether you ‘bring yourself to the front’ with ‘I’, or attempt to hide behind the text with ‘the researcher’.

Ultimately then, if writing with the ‘I’ is actually just a signifier of the subjective elements within our research, is it not more appropriate to work with it, therefore giving greater authorship in our voice behind the writing? And by doing this, we may just begin to bridge the objective and subjective together, enabling ourselves to become more accountable for the claims we make.

References:
Letherby, G. (2012). ‘Theorised Subjectivity’, in Letherby, G., Scott, J., and Williams, M. Objectivity and Subjectivity in Social Research. London: Sage

Stanley, L. and Wise, S. (1993). Breaking Out Again: Feminist Ontology and Epistemology. London: Routledge

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic 'I', academic writing, first person writing, subjectivity and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to writing with ‘I’ is subjective – and that’s OK

  1. Pat,

    Splendid piece.

    I work as a Learning Developer at the University of Leicester and often come across this issue in dialogue with students and academic colleagues. This is probably the most eloquent and coherent argument for using the first person I have come across. I’d really like to use extracts (fully credited, naturally) in workshops and consultations if that’s ok with you?

    Cheers,

    Steve Rooney (@estebanrooney)

    Like

  2. Arzoo says:

    Is it fine to write few chapters in first person and others not? For example, what I did regarding data collection and data interpretation in “I” while literature review not in the first person. Or it is against uniformity in a thesis?

    Like

    • pat thomson says:

      Yes that’s usually fine. You introduce the literatures saying what you’re going to do and the do the rest in the third person… unless you want to make a intervention or particular interpretation … In other words you might use I as the meta text.

      Like

    • Alex Seal says:

      Hi Arzoo – Yes, in principle…but best to always check with your supervisor(s) first though. I use ‘I’ in all my chapters…including the literature review. BUT this does not mean that I continually write “I think, I think, I believe, I think”… I instead use ‘I’ as a way of steering the discussion and to demonstrate my rationale for making those points. For example, “If person x says this, whilst person y’s study shows this, I would argue that…”. For me, this locates the writer in the text for others to judge whether the points you make can be considered credible – it all goes back to what I say above about accountable ‘knowledge’. So…writing with ‘I’ is as much a practical matter as it is a philosophical one! But like I say, always best to check with you supervisor(s) for their position first…

      Like

      • Arzoo says:

        Thank you Alex. Yeah I checked again with my supervisors after my first draft. Initially, my main supervisor had advised me to never write in first person but this time, he recommended me to use it but with caution. Your reply made it very clear on how it should be used in the thesis effectively. Thanks once again.

        Like

  3. jloughli says:

    Reblogged this on In Search of a Joyful Education and commented:
    Every year, with each new cohort of Masters of Teaching students, I get asked this question. To my mind the practice of critically reflective practice in teaching cannot be engaged with from an objective distance. Using Mason’s notion of noticing theory, my identity, experience, philosophy and perspective are all present in every pedagogical moment so the ‘I’ is unavoidable. Teaching and learning is a human endeavour, regardless of whether your default pedagogies are inherently behaviourist, constructivist or humanist (most commonly a combination of all three). The purpose of good critical reflection is to help us to reshape and refine our pedagogical practice in ways that strengthen the relationship between the learner and the learning. That is our role as teachers. So, to my teacher education students, yes, you must present in your reflective work. The ‘I’ is not only appropriate but necessary.

    Like

  4. This article speaks to the issue in a note I have in one of my notebooks of thoughts, references, phone numbers, and miscellaneous other things I want to remember:

    Avoiding “I” words in academic or other professional writing has always struck me as an attempt to evade responsibility, the grown-taller’s* version of the child’s “Not me” or “I don’t know” (with a shoulder shrug, of course) in answer to “Who did this?”

    * I use the term grown-taller when referring to persons old enough to qualify for the term “adult” but not deserving of it in other respects – thus I have dubbed what is ordinarily called “adult entertainment” as “grown-taller entertainment.”

    Like

  5. Middle England says:

    The ‘problems’ the author raises are all rather trivial. Does anyone when reading a journal article really believe that the research findings being reported are objective truths? All social researchers are taught to be robust in their criticisms of social research and a third person narrative will have little impact on how the authors will be judged regarding the merit of their research.

    The use if “I” is conceited and smug, it privileges the author’s world view over others whilst also diminishing the prestige value of the social science discipline the research falls under. Without an attempt towards objectivity there can be no fit standard to comparably measure social research against each other, without a standardisation of written research practice, there would be a disorder and confusion which would disgrace our research disciplines.

    If we want social research to have an impact we have to play by the rules of wider society, one which is obsessed by the objectivity of the natural sciences. It isn’t pretty, but thats life.

    Like

  6. Alex Seal says:

    Hi Middle England – You raise some interesting ideas, so I will answer some of the points you have raised.

    I am in full agreement with you that we should NOT ‘give into’ the subjective and embrace a culture that lacks intellectual rigour in research. However, you talk of a “standardisation of written practise” which, for me, is not achievable – All research (natural and social sciences) starts and finishes from a position of values. I see the merit in my argument as advancing a theorisation of the self and therefore how we affect the research process.

    If I am following your argument correctly, you seem to arguing for an approach where social research has an impact and becomes better recognised in public discourse. I agree (and I am a fan of Michael Burawoy’s ‘public sociology’). However, I, like others, cannot accept the notion of objectivity as achievable with its connotations with value-freedom (although I fully recognise that objectivity means many things to many people). But ultimately I do not think that research impact should be at the expense of intellectual rigour.

    Furthermore, I am not sure why “we have to play by the rules of wider society” in pushing for a greater public awareness of social research. For me, the object of investigation in social research is often these rules themselves – it is our role to be critically reflexive when studying them and not to accept them as ‘fact’. For me, objectivity cannot be exempt from those investigations as objectivity is a value itself.

    Lastly, you talk of the use of ‘I’ as “conceited” and “smug” that privileges the authors view above all others. I think we have to accept that a certain amount of privileging always occurs in research. It doesn’t matter whether you write in the first or third person – You construct how the research is undertaken and written up. All the more reason then for a theorisation of the self and objectivity in our research activities.

    I hope this had addressed some of the points you have raised. Happy to discuss further.

    Like

  7. Middle England says:

    Hi Alex, thanks for your response, you make some fair points and I certainly recognise your frustration at how undergraduates can write, I feel the problem (if it is one) stems from the written style drilled into students at secondary school for the very standardised GCSE and A-level examinations and therefore any changes that may be desirable when students start university might often be slower than some may prefer.

    To come back to you on a few points, you mention the ‘natural and social sciences’ quite aptly I think. While I would agree that both start and finish from a position of values, it would surely be ludicrous for every article in a science journal to outline the value assumptions that the research is premised upon, which to the readers must be entirely obvious. For social sciences I warrant that the value position that a researcher holds may not be immediately clear to the reader but that surely does not necessitate the use of ‘I’, a researcher can express the values they hold quite easily in a third person narrative style.

    A ‘theorisation of the self’ for the purpose of producing rigorous research is admirable but can be done by the researcher in their own time and private writings/drafts/musings. Writing in the third person offers a neutrality which aids a reader in being critical of the work, while first person narratives subtly bias the reader in favour of what they are reading, they read ‘I’ as themselves, and it is subsequently harder to be critical as to the merit of the work.

    Could the reflexivity of the researcher in their research practice, for the aim of doing good research, not be central to their approach but then be written up academically in a formal, third person style? Surely that would achieve ‘intellectual rigour’ and deliver research impact and help to maintain and expand the prestige value of different social science disciplines.

    You are certainly right that privileging occurs, regardless of first or third person written style, within academic writing. Yet a new ‘I’ culture would be adverse to core values within academia, which herald and revere former works which have informed and made possible our own research and constantly reiterate that research is not an ‘I’ game but a ‘we’ one.

    While I agree that it is important that researchers address their role within research and should write about it, an overemphasis on the ‘I’ is dangerous. The damage it could do to the status of social sciences in how they are regarded publicly – I hope that you share the view that social research should be done broadly with a purpose to do some good in the world? For if the overuse of ‘I’ brands social science disciplines as egotistical pseudosciences then the hopes of such research impacting on social policy, which has increased dramatically in recent decades in the UK, then the ‘good’ that social research could do may be damaged.

    Best wishes,

    ME

    Like

  8. Alex Seal says:

    Hi Middle England

    You again provide some thought-provoking ideas that I have spent the morning thinking about. I have addressed and responded to some of your comments (some of which we agree and some we disagree):

    In response to your point that it would be “ludicrous” for every science journal to lay out the value assumptions, my response would be: in a practical sense, yes. But from a philosophical point, no. If a science paper told me the temperature outside was 30 degrees celsius, I would treat that as a social value, as opposed to an objective truth – The concept of degrees celcius is as much a socially constructed value as a Likert scale – Conjecture would tell me though that ‘scientific’ knowledge holds far more weight in public discourse than social science knowledge – But that does not mean the natural sciences should become exempt from theorising research processes. The natural sciences are steeped in as many values as the social sciences. As I suggest shortly, our ability to recognise this is one of the social sciences’ greatest achievements.

    You suggest “a researcher can express the values they hold quite easily in a third person narrative style”. Absolutely, fully agreed. Perhaps we can start to find middle ground here…I would be quite willing to accept third person writing IF greater emphasis was placed upon the theorisation of self in research. You say that the researcher can do this in private, but if we can accept that ‘who we are affects what we do and what we get’, it is vitally important to document this in our research – it provides a greater accountability for the claims we make, and gives the reader a contextual lens to read the research through.

    I’m really interested that you used the word ‘bias’ – something I was once told by a colleague as an ‘academic swear word’ – And I agree with them! You and I both accept that all research starts and finishes from a position of values. Technically then, the research process is ‘biased’ throughout. But this is where my argument comes in…if we can accept the political complexity of the research process, isn’t it much better to think about these issues than to ignore them – why build a fence around “objectivity” when is doesn’t exist? However, I will stress again, this does not mean accepting and running away with the idea that the subjective is inevitable, following to embrace it with open arms. Instead, it is about liberating objectivity from its masculine, ‘natural’ scientific connotations with the possibility of total value-freedom. For me personally, starting with the subjective and working towards some conception of objectivity is a more feasible approach.

    You also suggest “writing in the third person offers a neutrality which aids the reader in being critical of the work” – I agree that all social scientists read with a critical eye, but in terms of neutrality, third person writing only offers a pseudo or superficial neutrality because no research is ever neutral. I’m starting to think back to Becker’s famous argument ‘whose side are we on’ here.

    If I’m following you correctly I think you also recognise some of these problems but lament on them due to the implications it can have for the (public) credibility of the social sciences. You asked if I shared “the view that social research should be done broadly with a purpose to do some good in the world”. I certainly do share that view with you! But, assuming you are within the social sciences, do you not also agree that (as social scientists) one of our greatest triumphs is our ability to be critically reflexive of the processes of our research? We perhaps then find ourselves at a political T-junction – to what extent can we overlook the real ability to tackle social injustices through research at the expense of research design rigour? Without a theorisation of self and objectivity, could we categorically state that we would find the same findings? … I fear there is no quick answer/solution to that one?!

    Anyway, thank you again for your response(s), Middle England. You present some really interesting critiques that I am certainly thinking about.

    Best wishes,
    Alex

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s