By Claire Aitchison
The use of the first person pronoun in academic writing has had a chequered history. When I first taught undergraduates about academic writing over 20 years ago we claimed that academic writing was “formal and objective” and therefore the use of “I” was frowned upon. Truly scientific research, and research writing, was thought to be “objective”, which was perceived as unbiased, unemotional and independently factual. The idea had its origins in 19th Century endeavours for seeking “natural truths” untainted by humans. It was based on a perception of the external world as an object for study quite separate and removed from the researcher. This view has been widely criticised: such “objectivity” is an impossibility, or as Donna Haraway (1998) put it, an illusion, “a god trick”.
Charles Darwin, the naturalist, didn’t seem to have had a problem with “I”. In The Origin of the Species, he uses the first person pronoun liberally throughout starting from his second sentence. I love his prose; it is easy to read, engaging and very personal while also thoughtful, considered, persuasive and credible. We know what he thinks and why, as evidenced by this small section:
As far as I am able to judge, after long attending to the subject, the conditions of life appear to act in two ways, — directly on the whole organisation or on certain parts alone and in directly by affecting the reproductive system. With respect to the direct action, we must bear in mind that in every case, as Professor Weismann has lately insisted, and as I have incidentally shown in my work on “Variation under Domestication,” there are two factors: namely, the nature of the organism and the nature of the conditions. (1873, p.1)
Of course, such 19th Century prose style won’t cut it for a contemporary scholar. However, there is much we can learn from the style, particularly for considering how to make claim statements and how to sustain an argument in support of those claims.
Luckily for us, these days “I” is making a comeback – even in the ‘hard’ sciences – however, acceptability doesn’t necessarily translate into stylish use. When, how, and how often “I” is used depends on its purpose and location, and the expectations of the audience (which are likely to be influenced by disciplinary and genre traditions). Whether or not to use “I” raises issues of voice, authority and knowing in relationship to a particular knowledge community. The successful use of “I” involves more than simply stating one’s view or experience.
“I” statements are more common in certain types of research and in particular locations in the research documentation. Participant research, personal narrative or reflective texts will, of necessity, include many “I” statements since the role of the researcher needs to be unambiguous. In a thesis “I” can often be found in an account of the methods undertaken in the conduct of data gathering and analysis, eg “I interviewed 25 people”, “I used NVivo in the coding process”.
“I” statements are also likely to be found when arguing a position, as may occur in the literature review when the author wants to emphasise their particular ‘take’ on a subject. They often occur in the discussion of findings and in conclusions where the researcher is making claims for significance, eg “Therefore I have demonstrated …”. These claim statement uses of “I” are the most difficult to execute successfully, because they involve strong rhetorical skills such as careful use of hedging and boosting and adroit contextual awareness.
While research writing requires the author to have a well-developed position, it isn’t always easy to know when and how to present these views. Research writing involves manipulating the voices of many players: mixing and presenting the author’s own views with the views of others into an already existing and on-going conversation. Graff and Birkenstein (2014) have successfully captured the nature of this intertextual dialogue by the phrase “They say, I say”. This conversational construct is a fabulous device for coming to know one’s position in the conversation-but it doesn’t always mean “I” must be used to convey this position.
It’s not all about you!
“I” can be overused. We don’t want to be continually reminded of the author’s presence. Excessive use of “I” can give the impression that the work is overburdened by personal opinion.
Sometimes “I” is unnecessary and inappropriate. If something is well-established in a knowledge community then a claim, framed as a personal position, seems naive. If something is commonly accepted or widely known by the reading audience, to use the construction “I argue that …” is redundant at best, or at worst can give the impression of ignorance. For example, doctoral education scholarship has long recognised that the student – supervisor relationship changes over time, so a claim “I argue that the relationship between students and supervisors changes during candidature” would be inappropriate. This is an argument already won. In this case, far from strengthening the authority of the author, an “I” statement may undermine the author, positioning him/her as an unknowing ‘outsider’. As this example illustrates, knowing when to use “I” for a claim statement is a bit like the difficulty of knowing whether or not it is necessary to provide a reference. In each case, knowledge of the disciplinary community/ reading audience will influence the author’s decision.
An “I” statement works well to foreground and differentiate one’s position from others as, for example, in this statement: “I understand reflective practice as …” or “I take up the notion of culture in order to …”. These two statements work because they profess a relational position in a space already occupied by others. The “I” marks a point of difference within a given context in recognition of an ongoing debate while also constructing the researcher’s identity as a knowledgeable insider.
It takes time to become proficient at navigating and balancing different voices and to know when and how to pitch one’s own voice into the fray with authority and confidence. Used judiciously, “I” can be the perfect mechanism for achieving this.
On the other hand, inappropriate “I” statements are like cold calls – they are decontextualized, mostly unwelcome and unsuccessful. To simply claim a position isn’t authorial – a claim needs to relate to existing knowledge, connect to appropriate evidence and be argued rhetorically. It sure is tricky!
Darwin, Charles, (1873 Reprint) The Origin of the Species Retrieved from https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Origin_of_Species_%281872%29 160316
Graff, G., & Birkenstein, C. (2014). “They say / I say”: The moves that matter in academic writing. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Haraway, Donna. (1998). Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies, 14(3 Autumn, 1988), 575-599. doi: 10.2307/3178066