Are you writing the ‘I’ into your research?

It was a surprise and somehow a welcome relief when my supervisor at the University of Nottingham, Prof Carol Hall, encouraged me to ‘write the I’ into my MA dissertation about emotional intelligence in teaching and learning. The six (long, tough) years I’d spent between 2000-06 as a mature, part-time under-graduate student at the University of Warwick, had drilled into my psyche the importance of ‘validity’ and ‘academic rigour’: words which, only now, I feel brave enough to include within italics. As many educationalists have noted (e.g. Merrill, 1999; West, 1998; Willis, 1977) because of my age, experience and working-class background, assimilating these methodological concepts was a hard battle and so choosing to subsequently relinquish them produced its own personal challenges.

However, by the end of my Masters, I felt this approach had opened-up a positive, new, creative world. Its reflexive nature promotes a refreshing consolidation of research, instinct and emotions, or as C. Wright Mills (1959) has written: “Scholarship is a choice of how to live as well as a choice of career” (p196). The paradigm change empowered me and provides me with a new sense of confidence and self-identity: yes, I carry my own validity and my academic rigour is provided by my own (and my colleagues’) sheer hard work!

But, as with any change, bringing the ‘body’ of the researcher – our own personal experiences and perspectives into our research – produces new dilemmas and risks. It creates tensions between the subjective/objective; quantitative/qualitative or the planning and rational thinking that is required in research project design. It can also be a source of disagreement between us and our supervisors! However, it is these very risks which create their own worth, because, by its very nature, writing the ‘I’ into our research produces unpredictable and destabilizing effects on our data, our work and on us as researchers (Hoult, 2010). Importantly, I believe this allows a voice to be given to the disenfranchised self (and those I represent) from my personal past, or as Aronowitz (2003) puts it: “the ongoing debate about the relationship of scholarship to social commitment”. In our journey towards seeking new knowledge, the elements of risk and uncertainty, and the inherent affectivity within, play a crucial part.

These dilemmas are issues that individuals have struggled with for decades and are only ever resolved on a personal level. It seems slightly ironic that only in the Appendix in Mills’ ‘Sociological Imagination’ does the author provide practical suggestions for ‘beginning students’. But these recommendations are still crucial today, and ones that I always pass on to my own students. For example, by creating a portfolio of personal items, discussing our research with others and keeping a journal of our emotional learning journey we can “…keep our inner world awake” (p197).

So, in this age of increasing multi/inter/cross-disciplinary approaches, and in an atmosphere of increased sensitivities to ethical and cultural issues, writing the ‘I’ into our research provides a creative, valuable and innovative tool that has the potential to stretch beyond barriers, providing new insights. And, although sadly, many sociologists have been “deterred by fear and careerism from following his path” (Aronowitz, 2003), there’s no doubt that Mills’ philosophy has been successfully transformed by the blogging, tweeting and social and academic networking environment that today so many of us take for granted. But we’ve entered a new millennium since Mills’ seminal publication, an era which has also produced a polarisation of inequalities and alarming environmental and economic pressures. I imagine Mills would be fascinated but saddened at this paradox

In this context of faster technological advances how can Mills’ ideas be taken forward? What practical methods are you utilising to write the ‘I’ into your work?


Aronowitz, S. (2003) A Mills’ Revival? Available online at : accessed 12/09/11

Hoult, E. C. (In Press) Adult Learning and la Recherche Féminine: Reading Resilience and Helene Cixous. London: Palgrave Macmillan

Merrill, B. (1999) learners in University in Gender Change and Identity open University Press: Bucks Chap 3 pp 134-171

Mills, C. W. (1959) The Sociological Imagination Oxford: Oxford University Press

Willis, P. (1977) Learning to Labour: How working class kids get working class jobs Farnborough: Saxon House

West, L. (1998) The Edge of a New Story? On paradox, postmodernism and the cultural psychology of experiential learning Studies in Continuing Education 20(2): 235-249


Categories: C. Wright Mills

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1 reply »

  1. You might have a look at the discussion on ‘Writing Culture’ at Savage Minds, and then read the articles at the Cultural Anthropology site, which are open access at the moment.

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