Doing autoethnography

Doing autoethnography means writing a story about oneself, doesn’t it? If that is the case, it should not be hard. Right? In fact, doing autoethnography requires quite a few skills. Among these are:

  • The ability to write evocatively and engagingly.
  • Keen skills for research. This involves doing fieldwork and research in the library. Fieldwork might entail doing interviews, document analysis and observing. Systematic review of literature is needed to contextualize a study’s findings.
  • Consideration of ethics. Doing autoethnography entails thinking about the ethical implications of how others in our lives — friends, family members, colleagues —are implicated what we share and what that means for representation of personal stories.

These skills contribute to crafting an engaging narrative that places the stories of self within a wider framework. These stories speak to others about both personal life experiences and the cultures in which we live. Two autoethnographies that exemplify these skills are those by H. Bud Goodall (2006) and Arthur Bochner (2014).

Bud Goodall, whose life was cut short by cancer in 2012, left a rich legacy of research and writing on doing qualitative research, including his autoethnography, A need to know: The clandestine history of a CIA family (2006).  Growing up as an only child in the Cold War in the United States, Goodall’s family life was plagued by secrecy. Later in life, he undertook an exploration of his parents’ lives, searching for and examining evidence to learn more about his father. Was his father a C.I.A. agent? That is one of the questions that Goodall’s book explores as he recounts his life story and explores the impact of secrets on family life. This book was written after the death of his parents, and Goodall writes sensitively about what he learned about his mother Naomi and his father after whom he was named.

In his book, Coming to narrative: A personal history of paradigm change in the human sciences, Art Bochner (2014) explores his journey from a young researcher in communications trained in positivist research methods to the current place he occupies as a leading autoethnographer who writes on narrative selves. Having read British ethnographer Paul Atkinson’s critique of contemporary movements in qualitative inquiry (Atkinson, 2015) prior to reading this book, I was prepared to be a critical reader. Atkinson takes to task indigenous methods, narrative methods, and autobiographical methods, and uses Bochner’s autoethnography as exemplifying two problems in narrative research: an absence of analysis and an absence of interaction.

Instead, I found the book made for compelling reading — I wanted to read more, and I found myself marking passages to share with my students. Although easily readable, the book deals with difficult topics — Bochner explores his troubled relationship with his father and the mental illness and breakdown experienced by his first wife. Bochner does much more than tell his own life story though. As he puts it in the penultimate chapter, these are stories overlap with those of others: “The Sixties Experience, The Jewish Experience, The Working-Class Experience, the Academic Experience, the Romantic Experience, and the Death and Dying Experience” (p. 299). Further, Bochner continually relates his journey of paradigm change as a social science researcher to methodological literature.

I’ve both read critiques and heard others dismiss autoethnography as a form of research that is easy to do, light weight and tending towards narcissism. Certainly, autoethnography can exhibit all of these tendencies. It does not need to, though. In the hands of skilled writers, adept researchers, and able scholars, readers learn about theory, method and life as experienced.

References

Atkinson, P. (2015). Rescuing interactionism from qualitative research. Symbolic Interaction, 38(4), 467-474.

Bochner, A. P. (2014). Coming to narrative: A personal history of paradigm change in the human sciences. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Goodall, H. L. (2006). A need to know: The clandestine history of a CIA family. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

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