Avoiding Bias in Capstone Writing -->

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Avoiding Bias in Capstone Writing

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Learning how to avoid bias in one’s writing is as just as important to writers in the social sciences as developing proficiency with APA style, research methods, and writing mechanics. Establishing scholarly voice, having your work be viewed as credible and ethical by others, and engaging readers all depend upon writing in as unbiased a manner as possible.

But, avoiding bias in social scientific writing is much less straightforward than other areas of writing such as grammar, argumentation, and citation, which have more clear-cut rules. Today, I want to discuss the critical issue of bias (specifically, how to avoid it) in scholarly writing, especially in dissertations and doctoral studies.
Avoiding Bias in Capstone Writing

According to standpoint theorists, we all have a standpoint, which is based on our identity and standing within our social order. This standpoint shapes what we see and know and what we think of as normal and abnormal. A capstone writer may not give a second thought to writing “our schools” or “America” when referring to U.S. schools or the United States. His or her readers may be confused or offended by this terminology, however. For this reason, APA guidelines call for limiting use of the “editorial we” and only using it when you have co-authored a paper and are writing from that perspective. APA guidelines also call for being as precise as possible when referring to countries and regions (e.g., using “United States”).

For capstone writers, who typically work on their documents for several years, avoiding bias may be especially challenging. Over time, they may become desensitized to the terms, abbreviations, and phrases that have become a part of their core vocabulary. Problematic language is very commonplace. Consider the use of the phrase “at risk” as an adjective. A capstone writer whose topic concerns youth who are homeless may encounter this term repeatedly in mainstream media, research literature, personal communication, and data collection. It could easily become part of her or her lexicon to say “at-risk youth.” A researcher studying a different topic might start to use the word “borderline” in the same way, having been immersed in the literature that defines the term in a specific way. But, as noted in APA 3.11, these terms are “loaded with innuendo unless properly explained” (p. 71). That is why it is much better to write “youth at risk of homelessness” or “individuals with borderline personality disorder.”

Also, during the long time of research conceptualization, data collection and analysis, and writing, language and cultural conventions often change, giving new meanings and understandings to existing terminology as well as leading to new vocabulary and ways of viewing and discussing social phenomena. For example, criticism of the notion of a gender binary (i.e., viewing gender in terms of two categories, male and female) has increased in recent years. Some people wish to view gender as a continuum while others wish to dispense with the category in its entirety. The use of "they" as a singular pronoun has become more and more common as a way to address these issues. As language changes, and it always does, past usages can lead to the perception of bias.

Please note that APA recommends using "they" as a singular pronoun when a participant prefers that term. In other cases, the organization recommends rephrasing sentences (e.g., replace a singular pronoun with a plural noun or pronoun or rephrase the sentence using both male and female pronouns) to maintain appropriately formal and grammatical sentence construction. You can find a lot of good guidelines, both general and by topic, in the current APA manual in print (see pp. 70-77) and online. No matter what your topic, I strongly encourage every dissertation and doctoral capstone writer to review these official guidelines.

My other tips for avoiding bias in capstone writing include the following:

be as concrete as possible. Writing in this manner and avoiding superlatives and excessive or unnecessary descriptors will help you immensely in establishing and maintaining a neutral tone. It will also help ensure that your readers take away your intended meaning, as my colleague Claire Helakoski recently noted on the Blog.

avoid totalizing language. This can happen when a writer represents someone’s essence based on one attribute of his or her self. For instance, the description “John, a disabled participant…” might convey to some readers that disability status is the most important part of John’s identity and life experience, when, in fact, it is only one part. The description might suggest a second-class status to other readers. Writing “John, a participant who identifies as disabled” conveys that John is a participant (i.e., who is like other participants) and, at the same time, acknowledges difference.

mention differences only when relevantStefanie at the APA Style Blog advises writers to “mention differences only when relevant.” I think that is great advice. You would not want to point out John’s disability status unless it was genuinely important to note based on your study focus or findings. The same thing with language such as “male nurse” and “female athlete.” I am not saying that you should not use these terms at all. But, if you do so, do so conscientiously and critically, ask yourself why you are marking such differences, and think about the implications (e.g., reinforcing perceptions of what is normal and natural).

call people what they want to be called. Stefanie goes on in her post to recommend that writers “call people what they want to be called.” As APA 3.16 notes, some readers may sense disapproval or contempt in the use of adjectives such as elderly and senior. Using older adults or giving specific age ranges is preferable. Also, think carefully about using “homosexual” as a noun or adjective. Although this term might be accurate, it is offensive to many readers because of its use to mark individuals who identified as nonheterosexual as deviant and unnatural. Use lesbian, gay men, and bisexual men or bisexual women, instead. Also, if a female participant refers to her wife, you should do the same.

be careful when putting people into groups. Even phrases such as the Latino population, LGBT community, and the Black race are problematic because they subtly convey that all members of these groups are a monolith. With regard to “the Latino population,” consider writing something like “Latino/a residents of New Orleans” to be more specific.

Avoiding bias in capstone writing can be challenging, but I hope that these tips and resources are helpful. Do check out our other resources aimed at helping you learn to avoid unintentional bias in your writing.

And please return to The Walden University Writing Center Blog regularly for more writing instruction geared specifically for writers completing their capstone studies. You (and your committee) will be glad you did.   

Tara Kachgal
  is a dissertation editor in the Walden University Writing Center. She has a Ph.D. in mass communication from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and teaches for the School of Government's online MPA@UNC program. She resides in Chapel Hill and, in her spare time, serves as a mentor for her local running store's training program.

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