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Autoethnography is a form of self-reflection and writing that explores the researcher's personal experience and connects this autobiographical story to wider cultural, political, and social meanings and understandings. It differs from ethnography —a qualitative research method in which a researcher uses participant observation and interviews in order to gain a deeper understanding of a group's culture— in that autoethnography focuses on the writer's subjective experience rather than, or in interaction with, the beliefs and practices of others. As a form of self-reflective writing, autoethnography is widely used in performance studies, as a method in living educational research and English.
According to Maréchal (2010), “autoethnography is a form or method of research that involves self-observation and reflexive investigation in the context of ethnographic field work and writing” (p. 43). A well-known autoethnographer, Carolyn Ellis (2004) defines it as “research, writing, story, and method that connect the autobiographical and personal to the cultural, social, and political” (p. xix). However, it is not easy to reach a consensus on the term’s definition. For instance, in the 1970s, autoethnography was more narrowly defined as "insider ethnography," referring to studies of the (culture of) a group of which the researcher is a member (Hayano, 1979). Nowadays, however, as Ellingson and Ellis (2008) point out, “the meanings and applications of autoethnography have evolved in a manner that makes precise definition difficult” (p. 449).
Autoethnography differs from ethnography, (a social research method employed by anthropologists and sociologists) , in that it embraces and foregrounds the researcher's subjectivity rather than attempting to limit it, as in empirical research. While ethnography tends to be understood as a qualitative method in the ‘social sciences’ that describes human social phenomena based on fieldwork, autoethnographers are themselves the primary participant/subject of the research in the process of writing personal stories and narratives. Autoethnography “as a form of ethnography,” Ellis (2004) writes, is “part auto or self and part ethno or culture” (p. 31) and “something different from both of them, greater than its parts” (p. 32). In other words, as Ellingson and Ellis (2008) put it, “whether we call a work an autoethnography or an ethnography depends as much on the claims made by authors as anything else” (p. 449).
In embracing personal thoughts, feelings, stories, and observations as a way of understanding the social context they are studying, autoethnographers are also shedding light on their total interaction with that setting by making their every emotion and thought visible to the reader. This is much the opposite of theory-driven, hypothesis-testing research methods that are based on the positivist epistemology. In this sense, Ellingson and Ellis (2008) see autoethnography as a social constructionist project that rejects the deep-rooted binary oppositions between the researcher and the researched, objectivity and subjectivity, process and product, self and others, art and science, and the personal and the political (pp. 450–459).
Autoethnographers, therefore, tend to reject the concept of social research as an objective and neutral knowledge produced by scientific methods, which can be characterized and achieved by detachment of the researcher from the researched. Autoethnography, in this regard, is a critical “response to the alienating effects on both researchers and audiences of impersonal, passionless, abstract claims of truth generated by such research practices and clothed in exclusionary scientific discourse” (Ellingson & Ellis, 2008, p. 450). Anthropologist Deborah Reed-Danahay (1997) also argues that autoethnography is a postmodernist construct:
The concept of autoethnography…synthesizes both a postmodern ethnography, in which the realist conventions and objective observer position of standard ethnography have been called into question, and a postmodern autobiography, in which the notion of the coherent, individual self has been similarly called into question. The term has a double sense - referring either to the ethnography of one's own group or to autobiographical writing that has ethnographic interest. Thus, either a self- (auto-) ethnography or an autobiographical (auto-) ethnography can be signaled by “autoethnography.” (p. 2)
Also, doing autoethnographic work, many researchers attempt to more fully realize the idea of reflexivity by which the researcher can be aware of his/her role in and relationship to the research. An autoethnography is a reflexive account of one's own experiences situated in culture.In other words, in addition to describing and looking critically at one's own experience, an autoethnography is also a cultural practice. For example, Stacy Holman Jones (2005), in (M)othering loss: Telling adoption stories, telling performativity, talks about her own experiences with infertility and adoption as they are linked to cultural attitudes about transnational adoption, adoption, infertility, and how we talk about these issues at different moments in time. She does so in order to understand her own story but also to change some of the perceptions around these issues.
Since autoethnography is a broad and ambiguous “category that encompasses a wide array of practices” (Ellingson & Ellis, 2008, pp. 449–450), autoethnographies “vary in their emphasis on the writing and research process (graphy), culture (ethnos), and self (auto)” (Reed-Danahay, 1997, p. 2). According to Ellingson and Ellis (2008), autoethnographers recently began to make distinction between two types of autoethnography; one is analytic autoethnography and the other is evocative autoethnography.
Analytic autoethnographers focus on developing theoretical explanations of broader social phenomena, whereas evocative autoethnographers focus on narrative presentations that open up conversations and evoke emotional responses. (p. 445)
A special issue of the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography (Vol 35, Issue 4, August 2006) contains several articles on the diverse definitions and uses of autoethnography. An autoethnography can be analytical (see Leon Anderson), written in the style of a novel (see Carolyn Ellis's methodological novel The Ethnographic I), performative (see the work of Norman K. Denzin, and the anthology The Ends of Performance) and many things in between. Symbolic interactionists are particularly interested in this method, and examples of autoethnography can be found in a number of scholarly journals, such as Qualitative Inquiry, the Journal of the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interactionism, the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, and the Journal of Humanistic Ethnography. It is not considered "mainstream" as a method by most positivist or traditional ethnographers, yet this approach to qualitative inquiry is rapidly increasing in popularity, as can be seen by the large number of scholarly papers on autoethnography presented at annual conferences such as the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry, and the Advances in Qualitative Methods conference sponsored by the International Institute of Qualitative Methodology. The spread of autoethnography into other fields is also growing, and a recent special issue of the journal Culture and Organization (Volume 13, Issue 3, Summer 2007) explores the idea of organizational autoethnography.
Autoethnography in performance studies acknowledges the researcher and the audience as equally as important to the research. Portraying the performed 'self' through writing then becomes an aim to create an embodied experience for the researcher and the reader. This area acknowledges the inward and outward experience of ethnography in experiencing the subjectivity of the author. Audience members may experience the work of ethnography through reading/hearing/feeling (inward) and then have a reaction to it (outward), maybe by emotion. Ethnography and performance work together to invoke emotion in the reader.
Higher education is also featuring more as the contextual backdrop for autoethnography probably due to the convenience of researching one’s own organisation (see Sambrook, Stewart, & Roberts, 2008; Doloriert & Sambrook, 2009, 2011). Such contributions explore the autoethnographer as a researcher/ teacher/ administrator doing scholarly work and/or as an employee working in Higher Education. Recent contributions include Humphreys’ (2005) exploration of career change, Pelias' (2003) performance narrative telling of the competing pressures faced by an early career academic and Sparkes’ (2007) heartfelt story of an academic manager during the stressful Research Assessment Exercise (2008). There are several contributions that are insightful for the student autoethnographer including Sambrook, et al. (2008) who explore power and emotion in the student-supervisor relationship, Doloriert and Sambrook (2009) who explore the ethics of the student 'auto'reveal, Rambo (2007) and her experiences with review boards, and finally Doloriert & Sambrook (2011) discussion on managing creativity and innovation within a PhD thesis.
Another recent extension of autoethnographic method involves the use of collaborative approaches to writing, sharing, and analyzing personal stories of experience. This approach is also labeled "collaborative autobiography" (Allen-Collinson & Hockey, 2001; Lapadat, 2009), and has been used in teaching qualitative research methods to university students.
Autoethnography is also used in film as a variant of the standard documentary film. It differs from the traditional documentary film, in that its subject is the filmmaker himself or herself. An autoethnography typically relates the life experiences and thoughts, views and beliefs of the filmmaker, and as such it is often considered to be rife with bias and image manipulation. Unlike other documentaries, autoethnographies do not usually make a claim of objectivity. An important text on autoethnography in filmmaking is Catherine Russell's Experimental Ethnography: The Work of Film in the Age of Video (Duke UP, 1999). For Autoethnographic artists, see also Jesse Cornplanter, Kimberly Dark, Peter Pitseolak, Ernest Spybuck.
In different academic disciplines (particularly communication studies and performance studies), the term autoethnography itself is contested and is sometimes used interchangeably with or referred to as personal narrative or autobiography. Autoethnographic methods include journaling, looking at archival records - whether institutional or personal, interviewing one's own self, and using writing to generate a self-cultural understandings. Reporting an autoethnography might take the form of a traditional journal article or scholarly book, performed on the stage, or be seen in the popular press. Autoethnography can include direct (and participant) observation of daily behavior; unearthing of local beliefs and perception and recording of life history (e.g. kinship, education, etc.); and in-depth interviewing: “The analysis of data involves interpretation on the part of the researcher” (Hammersley in Genzuk). However, rather than a portrait of the Other (person, group, culture), the difference is that the researcher is constructing a portrait of the self.
Autoethnography can also be “associated with narrative inquiry and autobiography” (Maréchal, 2010, p. 43) in that it foregrounds experience and story as a meaning making enterprise. Maréchal argues that “narrative inquiry can provoke identification, feelings, emotions, and dialogue” (p. 45). Furthermore, the increased focus on incorporating autoethnography and Narrative Inquiry into qualitative research indicates a growing concern for how the style of academic writing informs the types of claims made. As Laurel Richardson articulates "I consider writing as a method of inquiry, a way of finding out about a topic...form and content are inseparable" (2000, p. 923). For many researchers, experimenting with alternative forms of writing and reporting, including autoethnography, personal narrative, performative writing, layered accounts and writing stories, provides a way to create multiple layered accounts of a research study, creating not only the opportunity to create new and provocative claims but also the ability to do so in a compelling manner. Ellis (2004) says that autoethnographers advocate “the conventions of literary writing and expression” in that “autoethnographic forms feature concrete action, emotion, embodiment, self-consciousness, and introspection portrayed in dialogue, scenes, characterization, and plot” (p. xix).
According to Bochner and Ellis (2006), an autoethnographer is “first and foremost a communicator and a storyteller.” In other words, autoethnography “depicts people struggling to overcome adversity” and shows “people in the process of figuring out what to do, how to live, and the meaning of their struggles” (p. 111). Therefore, according to them, autoethnography is “ethical practice” and “gifts” that has a caregiving function (p. 111). In essence autoethnography is a story that re-enacts an experience by which people find meaning and through that meaning are able to be okay with that experience. A prime example of autoethnography occurs when a family member or someone close to the family dies. In this painful experience people often wonder how they will go about living without this person and what it will be like. In this scenario, especially in religious homes, one often asks “Why God?” thinking that with an answer as to why the person died they can go about living. Others, wanting to be able to offer up an explanation to make the person feel better, generally say things such as “At least they are in a better place.” or “God wanted him/her home.”. People, who are never really left with an explanation as to why, generally fall back on the reason that “it was their time to go” and through this somewhat “explanation” find themselves able to move on and keep living life. Over time when looking back at the experience of someone close to you dying, one may find that through this hardship they became a stronger more independent person, or that they grew closer to other family members. With these realizations, the person has actually made sense of and has become fine with the tragic experience that occurred. And through this autoethnography is performed.
The main critique of autoethnography — and qualitative research in general — comes from the traditional social science methods that emphasize the objectivity of social research. In this critique, qualitative researchers are often called “journalists, or soft scientists,” and their work, including autoethnography, is “termed unscientific, or only exploratory, or entirely personal and full of bias” (Denzin & Lincoln, 1994, p. 4). As Denzin and Lincoln (1994) argue, many quantitative researchers regard the materials produced by “the softer, interpretive methods” as “unreliable, impressionistic, and not objective” (p. 5).
According to Maréchal (2010), the early criticism of autobiographical methods in anthropology was about “their validity on grounds of being unrepresentative and lacking objectivity” (p. 45). She also points out that evocative and emotional genres of autoethnography have been criticized by mostly analytic proponents for their “lack of ethnographic relevance as a result of being too personal.” As she writes, they are criticized “for being biased, navel-gazing, self-absorbed, or emotionally incontinent, and for hijacking traditional ethnographic purposes and scholarly contributions” (Maréchal, 2010, p. 45).
In her book's tenth chapter, titled “Evaluating and Publishing Autoethnography” (pp. 252~255), Ellis (2004) discusses how to evaluate an autoethnographic project, based on other authors’ ideas about evaluating alternative modes of qualitative research. (See the special section in Qualitative Inquiry on ‘Assessing Alternative Modes of Qualitative and Ethnographic Research: How Do We Judge? Who Judges?) She presents several criteria for ‘good autoethnography’ mentioned by Bochner (2000), Clough (2000), Denzin (2000) and Richardson (2000), and indicates how these ideas resonate with each other. First, Ellis mentions Laurel Richardson (2000, pp. 15–16) who described five factors she uses when reviewing personal narrative papers that includes analysis of both evaluative and constructive validity techniques. The criteria are:
Autoethnographic manuscripts might include dramatic recall, unusual phrasing, and strong metaphors to invite the reader to ‘relive’ events with the author. These guidelines may provide a framework for directing investigators and reviewers alike. Further, Ellis suggests how Richardson’s criteria mesh with criteria mentioned by Bochner who describes what makes him understand and feel with a story. (Bochner, 2000, pp. 264~266) He looks for concrete details (similar to Richardson’s expression of lived experience), structurally complex narratives (Richardson’s aesthetic merit), author’s attempt to dig under the superficial to get to vulnerability and honesty (Richardson’s reflexivity), a standard of ethical self-consciousness (Richardson’s substantive contribution), and a moving story (Richardson’s impact) (Ellis, 2004, pp. 253~254).
As a research method that emerged from the tradition of social constructionism and interpretive paradigm, autoethnography challenges the traditional social scientific methodology that emphasizes the criteria for quality in social research developed in terms of validity. Carolyn Ellis writes, “In autoethnographic work, I look at validity in terms of what happens to readers as well as to research participants and researchers. To me, validity means that our work seeks verisimilitude; it evokes in readers a feeling that the experience described is lifelike, believable, and possible. You also can judge validity by whether it helps readers communicate with others different from themselves or offers a way to improve the lives of participants and readers- or even your own.” (Ellis, 2004, p. 124). In this sense, Ellis (2004) emphasizes the ‘narrative truth’ for autoethnographic writings.
I believe you should try to construct the story as close to the experience as you can remember it, especially in the initial version. If you do, it will help you work through the meaning and purpose of the story. But it’s not so important that narratives represent lives accurately – only, as Art(Arthur Bochner) argues, ‘that narrators believe they are doing so’ (Bochner, 2002, p. 86). Art believes that we can judge one narrative interpretation of events against another, but we cannot measure a narrative against the events themselves because the meaning of the events comes clear only in their narrative expression. (p.126)
Instead, Ellis suggests to judge (autoethnographic writings) on the usefulness of the story, (Bochner, 2001) rather than only on accuracy. (Ellis, 2004, p. 126) Art argues that the real questions is what narratives do, what consequences they have, to what uses they can be put. Narrative is the way we remember the past, turn life into language, and disclose to ourselves and others the truth of our experiences (Bochner, 2001). In moving from concern with the inner veridicality to outer pragmatics of evaluating stories, Plummer also looks at uses, functions, and roles of stories, and adds that they ‘need to have rhetorical power enhanced by aesthetic delight (Plummer, 2001, p. 401).
Similarly, Laurel Richardson uses the metaphor of a crystal to deconstruct traditional validity (Richardson, 1997, p. 92). A crystal has an infinite number of shapes, dimensions and angels. It acts as a prism and changes shape, but still has structure. Another writer, Patti Lather, proposes counter-practices of authority that rupture validity as a ‘regime of truth’ (Lather, 1993, p .674) and lead to a critical political agenda (Olesen, 2000, p. 231). She mentions the four subtypes: "ironic validity, concerning the problems of representation; paralogical validity, which honors differences and uncertainties; rhizomatic validity, which seeks out multiplicity; and voluptuous validity, which seeks out ethics through practices of engagement and self-reflexivity (Lather, 1993, pp. 685~686)" (Ellis, 2004, pp. 124~125).
With regard to the term of ‘generalizability’, Ellis (2004) points out that autoethnographic research seeks generalizability not just from the respondents but also from the readers. Ellis says, “I would argue that a story’s generalizability is always being tested – not in the traditional way through random samples of respondents, but by readers as they determine if a story speaks to them about their experience or about the lives of others they know. Readers provide theoretical validation by comparing their lives to ours, by thinking about how our lives are similar and different and the reasons why. Some stories inform readers about unfamiliar people or lives. We can ask, after Stake, ‘does the story have ‘naturalistic generalization’?’ meaning that it brings ‘felt’ news from one world to another and provides opportunities for the reader to have vicarious experience of the things told. (Stake, 1994) The focus of generalizability moves from respondents to readers.”(p.195) This generalizability through the resonance of readers’ lives and “lived experience”(Richardson, 1997) in autoethnographic work, intends to open up rather than close down conversation (Ellis, 2004, p. 22)
Denzin’s important criterion is whether the work has the possibility to change the world and make it a better place. (Denzin, 2000, p. 256) This position fits with Clough, who argues that good autoethnographic writing should motivate cultural criticism. Autoethnographic writing should be closely aligned with theoretical reflection, says Clough, so that it can serve as a vehicle for thinking ‘new sociological subjects’ and forming ‘new parameters of the social.’ (Clough, 2000, p. 290) Though Richardson and Bochner are less overtly political than Denzin and Clough, they indicate that good personal narratives should contribute to positive social change and move us to action. (Bochner, 2000, p. 271)
The benefits of autoethnography are the ways in which research of such a personal nature might give us insight into problems often overlooked in culture—issues such as the nature of identity, race, sexuality, child abuse, eating disorders, life in academia, and the like. In addition to helping the researcher make sense of his or her individual experience, autoethnographies are political in nature as they engage their readers in important political issues and often ask us to consider things, or do things differently. Chang (2008) argues that autoethnography offers a research method friendly to researchers and readers because autoethnographic texts are engaging and enable researchers to gain a cultural understanding of self in relation to others, on which cross-cultural coalition can be built between self and others.
Also, autoethnography as a genre frees us to move beyond traditional methods of writing, promoting narrative and poetic forms, displays of artifacts, photographs, drawings, and live performances (Cons, p. 449). Denzin says authoethnography must be literary, present cultural and political issues, and articulate a politics of hope. The literary criteria he mentions are covered in what Richardson advocates: aesthetic value (Richardson, 2000, p. 15). Ellis elaborates her idea in autoethnography as good writing that through the plot, dramatic tension, coherence, and verisimilitude, the author shows rather than tells, develops characters and scenes fully, and paints vivid sensory experiences.
While advocating autoethnography for its value, some researchers argue that there are also several concerns about autoethnography. Chang (2008) warns autoethnographers of pitfalls that they should avoid in doing autoethnography: "(1) excessive focus on self in isolation from others; (2) overemphasis on narration rather than analysis and cultural interpretation; (3) exclusive reliance on personal memory and recalling as a data source; (4) negligence of ethical standards regarding others in self-narratives; and (5) inappropriate application of the label autoethnography" (p. 54).
Also some qualitative researchers have expressed their concerns about the worth and validity of autoethnography. Robert Krizek (2003) contributed a chapter of 'Ethnography as the Excavation of 'Personal Narrative' (pp. 141–152)to the book of "Expressions of Ethnography" in which he expresses concern about the possibility for autoethnography to devolve into narcissism. Krizek goes on to suggest that autoethnography, no matter how personal, should always connect to some larger element of life.
There are several flows of critiques with regard to evaluating autoethnographical works grounded in interpretive paradigm. First, some researchers have criticized that within qualitative research there are those that dismiss anything but positivist notions of validity and reliability. (see Doloriert and Sambrook, 2011, pp. 593–595) For example, Schwandt (1996, p. 60) argues that some social researchers have “come to equate being rational in social science with being procedural and criteriological.” Building on quantitative foundations, Lincoln and Guba (1985) translate quantitative indicators into qualitative quality indicators, namely: credibility (parallels internal validity), transferability (parallels external validity), dependability(parallels reliability), and confirmability (parallels objectivity and seeks to critically examine whether the researcher has acted in good faith during the course of the research). Smith (1984) and Smith and Heshusius (1986) critique these qualitative translations and warn that the claim of compatibility (between qualitative and quantitative criteria) cannot be sustained and by making such claims researches are in effect closing down the conversation. Smith (1984, p. 390) points out that
What is clear . . . is that the assumptions of interpretive inquiry are incompatible with the desire for foundational criteria. How we are to work out this problem, one way or another, would seem to merit serious attention.
Secondly, some other researchers questions the need for specific criteria itself. Bochner (2000) and Clough (2000) both are concerned that too much emphasis on criteria will move us back to methodological policing and will takes us away from a focus on imagination, ethical issues in autographic work, and creating better ways of living. (Bochner, 2000a, p. 269) The autoethnographer internally judges its quality. Evidence is tacit,individualistic, and subjective (see Richardson, 2000; Holman Jones, 2005; Ellis & Bochner, 2003). Practice-based quality is based in the lived research experience itself rather than in its formal evidencing per se. Bochner (2000) says:
Self-narratives . . . are not so much academic as they are existential, reflecting a desire to grasp or seize the possibilities of meaning, which is what gives life its imaginative and poetic qualities . . . a poetic social science does not beg the question of how to separate good narrativization from bad . . . [but] the good ones help the reader or listener to understand and feel the phenomena under scrutiny. (p. 270)
Finally, in addition to this anti-criteria stance of some researchers, some scholars have suggested that the criteria used to judge autoethnography should not necessarily be the same as traditional criteria used to judge other qualitative research investigations (Garratt & Hodkinson, 1999; Holt, 2003; Sparkes, 2000). They argue that autoethnography has been received with a significant degree of academic suspicion because it contravenes certain qualitative research traditions. The controversy surrounding autoethnography is in part related to the problematic exclusive use of the self to produce research (Denzin & Lincoln, 1994). This use of self as the only data source in autoethnography has been questioned (see, for example, Denzin & Lincoln, 1994; Sparkes, 2000). Accordingly, autoethnographies have been criticized for being too self-indulgent and narcissistic (Coffey, 1999). Sparkes (2000) suggested that autoethnography is at the boundaries of academic research because such accounts do not sit comfortably with traditional criteria used to judge qualitative inquiries(Holt, 2003, p. 19). Holt (2003) associates this problem with this problem as two crucial issues in 'the fourth moment of qualitative research' Denzin & Lincoln (2000) presented; the dual crises of representation and legitimation. The crisis of representation refers to the writing practices (i.e., how researchers write and represent the social world). Additionally, verification issues relating to methods and representation are (re)considered as problematic (Marcus & Fischer, 1986). The crisis of legitimation questions traditional criteria used for evaluating and interpreting qualitative research, involving a rethinking of terms such as validity, reliability, and objectivity (Holt, 2003, p. 19). Holt (2003) says:
Much like the autoethnographic texts themselves, the boundaries of research and their maintenance are socially constructed (Sparkes, 2000). In justifying autoethnography as proper research, it should be noted that ethnographers have acted autobiographically before, but in the past they may not have been aware of doing so, and taken their genre for granted (Coffey, 1999). Autoethnographies may leave reviewers in a perilous position. [...] the reviewers were not sure if the account was proper research (because of the style of representation), and the verification criteria they wished to judge this research by appeared to be inappropriate. Whereas the use of autoethnographic methods may be increasing, knowledge of how to evaluate and provide feedback to improve such accounts appears to be lagging. As reviewers begin to develop ways in which to judge autoethnography, they must resist the temptation to "seek universal foundational criteria lest one form of dogma simply replaces another" (Sparkes, 2002b, p. 223). However, criteria for evaluating personal writing have barely begun to develop (DeVault, 1997). (p. 26)