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August 2, 2013 / jpschimel

We need to know who “we” is: being careful with first person

In “Writing Science” I argue that using the first person is a fine thing to do—if you did the work, or you had the thought, what is wrong we saying so?

But as academics, we sometimes use “we” to mean the authors, and we sometimes use “we” to mean the larger community. If you are not careful distinguishing these uses, it can be confusing.

This was brought to my attention when a colleague sent me a copy of “The Weirdest People in the World?” by Joseph Henrich, Steven Heine, and Ara Norenzayan. This paper raises the concern that most psychological studies are done on North American university students from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic (i.e. WEIRD) societies, who are not always representative of the entire human population. In general this paper is a cleanly and powerfully written piece. The authors write with energy and passion; they open with a powerful “Queen Launch” and resolve with a compelling argument. And, they write actively in the first person—“we did,” “we think,” “we pursued.”

But one paragraph struck me and it raises the question “Who is ‘we’?”

“Our theoretical perspective, which is informed by evolutionary thinking, leads us to suspect that many aspects of people’s psychological repertoire are universal. However, the current empirical foundations for our suspicions are rather weak because the database of comparative studies that include small-scale societies is scant, despite the obvious importance of such societies in understanding both the evolutionary history of our species and the potential impact of diverse environments on our psychology. Here we first discuss the evidence for differences between populations drawn from industrialized and small-scale societies in some seemingly basic psychological domains, and follow this with research indicating universal patterns across this divide.”

In this paragraph, I don’t think that “us” is the  authors when they say  “our theoretical perspective” and “leads ‘us’ to suspect.” I think it is a more global “us”—psychological researchers as a community. But that isn’t clear; particularly because later in the paragraph they say “Here we first discuss the evidence…” By using the first person reference in two quite different ways within a single paragraph, they create potential confusion.

When you write in the first person, the reader needs to be able to tell who “we” is. That can switch through the text, as readers can often infer from context whether “we” means the authors or some larger community. Clearly, in “Here we first discuss,”  we means the authors.  But “Our theoretical perspective” might mean the authors or it might mean a larger community—because the authors wrote assertively in the first-person, it makes the usage more confusing.

So, first person is appropriate for describing what you did and what you think, but be careful to avoid mixing the uses of “we.” We need to know who “we” is.

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