Using anthropomorphism in academic writing

It’s not uncommon to read “this study concludes…” or “these findings suggest…” in academic writing. I would hazard a guess that nearly every researcher has used similar phrases at some point in their career. You may well have used them yourself and thought nothing of it. However, these ubiquitous and seemingly innocuous phrases cause quite a stir in certain circles.

They are just two examples of anthropomorphism: incidences where the author attributes human characteristics to inanimate or nonhuman objects or concepts. Under APA 6 guidelines, academics would be chided for implying that their data had the power of speech – how can data say anything? Anthropomorphism was to be avoided at all costs.

It can be tempting to give human qualities to anything and everything!

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

And logically, rationally, this makes sense. Data, findings, “the study” – all these things lack agency. Research doesn’t think, explore, or conclude; researchers do! Active verbs belong with people, not abstract concepts or inanimate objects.

If you are only now learning of these particular guidelines, you may be groaning, rolling your eyes, and wondering if you have to go back through your entire dissertation to awkwardly juggle clauses and remove agency from “the study”. If you’re writing in the first-person, this is fairly straightforward. What was “this chapter describes…” becomes “in this chapter, I describe…”.

However, whilst first-person writing is an increasingly popular choice for qualitative researchers, not all supervisors, examiners and journal editors will accept this format…a topic for a whole other blog. De-anthropomorphising sentences in the third person is possible, but it can lead to some verbose and awkward phrasing. For example:

This research explores the impact of dog ownership on people’s happiness.

Could become the slightly wordier:

In this study, the researchers explored the impact of dog ownership on people’s happiness.

Or the clumsy, back-ended passive-voice version:

          In this research, the impact of dog ownership on people’s happiness was explored.

Every dog has its data
Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

Perhaps you’re wondering what all the fuss is about. Surely this is pedantic in the extreme; we know that it’s the researchers, not the research, who are doing the exploring, describing and suggesting! Anthropomorphism is a useful and engaging stylistic shorthand which can facilitate clarity and conciseness, rather than create confusion. It’s unlikely that we will read “the study suggests…” and go away thinking “gosh, that study has acquired the power of speech! And isn’t it remarkably articulate?”

And to an extent, it seems the APA style guide finally agrees (or should that be “the authors of the APA style guide agree” …?)… to an extent. Under APA 7 guidelines, the rules around anthropomorphism have been relaxed, meaning your study can now be allowed to speak. Only a little, though, and only under strict circumstances. There are limits to the active verbs which can be ascribed to non-human entities. For example, it’s now fine to state:

The data suggests…

The findings indicate…

The table presents…

Some phrases which might be acceptable (but use with caution):

This chapter describes…

The questionnaire assessed…

But definitely steer clear of:

The study concluded… (this suggests that there is one objective conclusion to be drawn from the data).

The literature claims… (this suggests that from a whole body of literature on a given topic, one unified view can be drawn).

Whilst there is arguably room for clarification around these new guidelines, I wouldn’t hold out hope for a comprehensive list of suitable verb-subject pairings. A good rule of thumb may be to question why you’re employing anthropomorphism – does it clarify your writing (perhaps by avoiding long, awkward sentence structuring), or does it muddy your intended meaning? If you spot anthropomorphism in your writing, is there another way this could be phrased? While there is no longer a blanket ban on anthropomorphism in APA, it’s generally good practice to reflect on your writing, and what you may be implying by employing this device.

You can read more about the changes to the rules here.

Sometimes it’s a case of moving the pieces around.
Photo by Olav Ahrens Røtne on Unsplash

If this all feels overwhelming, or confusing, or you’re not sure where to start, then there’s always help available. Get in touch with us about your writing concerns! Whether it’s specifically about anthropomorphism or more broadly about APA style, we’re happy to provide expert guidance and friendly support. Just fill in the box below to contact us, and we’ll get back to you ASAP.