Most people are pretty wary of writing as ‘we’. That’s probably because it sounds too much like the Royal plural. Only the Monarch talks of herself as more than a singular, right? And anyone else who does is just being pretentious.
Well, not quite. Some people do seem to think that in academic writing they should write about themselves as a ‘we’. I have seen the odd doctoral researcher (definitely odd) write about themselves in the third person – the researcher does this and that – and then when asked to change, write about themselves and their research project as ‘we’. This is clearly a refusal to do ‘I’ and both ‘the researcher’ and the ‘we’ reads as something, well, just as something very weird when it’s about and from one person.
However, there are academic uses of ‘we’ that make sense. The first and most glaringly obvious is when research has been done by a ‘we’, a team. And if that’s the case, it becomes very peculiar to read a paper with multiple authors which lapses into ‘I’. This is a little trap for those writing a team paper, individuals who are responsible for first drafts, or indeed for first and final drafts. I’m doing just that at present and at one point I did have to go back through my paper and change ‘I’ to ‘we’ because I had temporarily forgotten I was writing for the entire team, not just me.
BUT sometimes there is an academic use of ‘we’ which is an appeal to or an assumption of commonality or agreement – as in ‘we in the academy’, or ‘we the people’. While this is pretty common in blogs (where ‘we’ can probably get away with it) it is also relatively common – and acceptable – in academic writing. However, in writing this kind of ‘we’, the writer always runs the risk of someone asking “Who is this we? What is the evidence that there is a we?” And indeed, this is always what I write, as an examiner, reviewer or supervisor, in the margins of a text when I see a ‘we’ which is used as a generalisation of opinion.
It is possible to make more comprehensible and defensible this academic use of ‘we’, the one which signals membership of a community. This can for example be when a writer wants to make a point about what a particular scholarly group does on the basis of shared conventions or convictions. ‘We’ examiners always look for theses that are well argued and structured. ‘We’ scientists never write as ‘I’ – well except for that lot over there who do so in a few specific journals. But in this kind of ‘we’ usage, there is always the possibility of challenge. Is this universalizing too much about the ‘we’ group? And what does it mean to speak for ‘we’? What about all of those who are ‘not we’?
Here is an example of a researcher writing in just this way, as a member of an epistemic group. ‘We’ signifies a claim to membership of a particular scholarly community. This is Liz Bondi, writing in Acme journal.
Before proceeding to the main body of the paper, I have two preliminary points to make. First, feminist researchers in geography and other disciplines frequently address multiple audiences from multiple positions. For example, feminist geographers endeavour to communicate with geographers who take up a variety of positions in relation to different feminisms, with those outside as well as inside the discipline geography, and with activists as well as academics. In so doing, we draw on our own multiple positions and identities as geographers, feminists, academics, and much else besides. Negotiating such plurality presents us with numerous problems and dilemmas, including decisions about the “voice” we adopt in particular contexts, whether orally or in writing. My use of the first person plural here signals my sense of belonging within the category of “feminist geography”. However, the first person plural necessarily excludes as well as includes: it differentiates “us” from “not us”, whether “not us” is construed as “them” or “other” or something else. I imagine that readers will position themselves variously: included, excluded, elsewhere, affronted and so on. This positioning invokes processes of identification (identifying with) and dis-identification (identifying as “other than” or “against”), which are central to my concerns in this paper.
Throughout the paper Bondi switches between ‘we’ and ‘I’ depending on whether she puts herself forward writing as a member of the feminist geography community or whether she is writing as herself, the individual scholar. She does this having alerted the reader at the outset that this is her intention, and that she is conscious of the effects of delineating boundaries of community in this way.
This is a self-conscious and reflexive use of ‘we’. It’s not done for stylistic purposes, and it is done very explicitly. This is what makes it acceptable. Even if I/you don’t agree with this use of ‘we’, ‘we’ can see the argument that is made and the reasoning for it. This is what ‘we’ academics do, we make and justify our syntactic choices, leaving the reader understanding why they are reading these particular words.