Archive for April 2nd, 2013

Whenever my students are tasked with writing research reports, they realize that it is difficult to write about something you have done without recognizing the fact that you have done it. It is much easier, for example, to state “I conducted a content analysis of 20 magazine articles” or “I interviewed five students” than it is to say “a content analysis of 20 magazine articles was conducted” or “five students were interviewed.” The latter options beg the question, “by whom?” Faced with this difficulty, students often ask if they can use “I” in their papers. My contention has always been that research is an active process and that the use of first-person pronouns is a reflection of the researcher’s active involvement in this process. The avoidance of first-person pronouns also results in the use of passive voice, which students are also told to avoid.

When I tell students that they can, and should, use “I” in their papers (or “we” in the case of group papers), they typically say that they have been told to avoid its use in other courses. I always assumed that these courses were in the humanities or other disciplines where writers discuss texts while attempting to leave themselves out. I recently discovered, however, that one of my colleagues in sociology consistently tells her students not to use first-person pronouns and requires them to change their writing when they do so. I was amazed to hear this and, when discussing the issue with her, she noted that this was the way she was taught to write and that she has never included first-person pronouns in her work. Although she isn’t much older than I am, this assertion strikes me as out of date.

To see if I was wrong, I looked at the most recent issue of the American Sociological Review, in which the authors of all six papers use either “I” or “we” in discussing their methods. Most likely, this consistency indicates an editorial policy of ASR, since I imagine that there is still quite a bit of variation among researchers. I believe, however, that it is time for all researchers to recognize their role in the research process and do away with the awkward phrases that are the result of avoiding the use of “I.”

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