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X. Using APA Style in Academic Writing: Avoiding Biased Language

Feb 26, 2015 by Jeff Hume-Pratuch

The APA Publication Manual reflects APA’s commitment as a scientific organization to equality in the treatment of both individuals and groups. In its books, journals, and other publications, APA expects authors to reject demeaning or biased language and assumptions. APA’s expectations provide a good general approach to avoiding bias when writing about issues of gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, disability, or age—even if you are not writing for APA.

Call People What They Want to Be Called

This is a pretty basic rule, but an important one: Respect the preferences of the group you’re describing. Perhaps more importantly, call them what they want to be called now. Preferred terminology inevitably changes as groups redefine themselves and sensitivities evolve. When in doubt, survey a broad sample of the group about whom you’re writing—and keep in mind that individuals within a group may disagree.

Be Aware of Your Own Cultural Biases

All of us are raised in a cultural milieu that influences the way we see issues of race, ethnicity, and so on. Inevitably, our background comes out in our writing. Even experienced researchers of good will can make mistakes when writing cross-culturally.

A recent journal article illustrates how these problems can occur. Reviewers flagged a study of depression among men in a European prison because a third of the participants were identified as African American. This raised questions of data integrity: How did a foreign prison come to have such a high proportion of incarcerated Americans? As it turned out, the men in question were actually natives of Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria. The authors had used the term African American as if it equaled “of African extraction”—a reasonable assumption in a U.S. cultural context, but not universally.

Just as it’s necessary to check your writing for errors in spelling, grammar, and logic, learn to review it for expressions of unconscious bias. Whenever possible, ask one or more members of the group under discussion to read through passages of concern.

Be Specific

When you are describing a sample, be as specific as you can about the factors that are relevant to your study. This will help your readers understand your study, and will also better enable other researchers to replicate your results.

For example, say you are writing about study habits among a group of children drawn from several middle schools. You could write “We studied 450 middle school students,” but it is much more informative to write “We studied a sample of 450 seventh graders, ages 10–11.” If you’re not sure about how much information to include, err on the side of more rather than less. Future researchers can aggregate detailed data, if necessary.

Avoid the use of broad, undefined terms that may have a negative connotation. Labeling participants as at risk merely identifies them as a problem; specify what the risk is (e.g., “children at risk of homelessness”). Likewise, minority is often used as shorthand for all people of non-White ancestry, but the word can carry a pejorative meaning when it implies that the majority group is the standard against which all others should be judged (e.g., “White Americans and minorities”). Use a modifier (e.g., racial, ethnic, religious) to identify the context in which the group under discussion constitutes a minority.

Focus on People, Not Labels

The nature of quantitative research often requires authors to collate information about a group of individuals and identify similar characteristics. The danger is that in doing so we may focus on the characteristics but lose sight of the persons involved. Avoid labeling people as objects (the gays, the elderly, the schizophrenics). You can do this by identifying the relevant characteristic via adjectives rather than nouns (gay men, older adults) or by using a prepositional phrase as a modifier (people with schizophrenia).

A related issue is the tendency to write as if study participants are the raw material to be acted on, rather than persons who are cooperating with the research. “Subjects were run through a series of tests” objectifies the persons involved; it’s preferable to write “Subjects completed a series of tests.”

Don’t Censor the Data

Authors are expected to avoid the use of biased assumptions and demeaning terms, but it’s important to recognize them where they exist. A qualitative study of Tourette syndrome, for example, will undoubtedly include words that would otherwise be excluded from academic writing. Similarly, overlaying modern terminology on historical material may misrepresent the ideas of the original author and result in serious misunderstandings. Never change a direct quote by substituting language that is more currently acceptable.

For More Information

As noted above, there is no list of APA-approved terms for writing about sensitive topics such as race, ethnicity, gender, disability, and age. However, the APA Publication Manual includes a detailed discussion of some prominent issues in Chapter 3 (pp. 71–77). In addition, there is an online supplement to the manual that provides good examples of both preferred and problematic language. You’ll find it at http://supp.apa.org/style/pubman-ch03.00.pdf.

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