, Patter: http://patthomson.wordpress.com/2013/07/25/should-i-write-as-an-i/
Is the use of ‘I’ acceptable practice in doctoral writing?
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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