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.
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