What is Autoethnography?

Researchers are usually familiar with the term “ethnography”, which is a research approach that examines culture through being there. Ethnographers typically embed themselves in settings and observe what is going on. They get to know participants over extended periods of time, use interviews to understand participants’ perspectives about their lives and cultures, and perhaps collect and analyze archival data and artifacts.  Some researches make use of video and still images as well. Anthropologists (Geertz, 1973, 2000), sociologists (Desmond, 2016; Duneier, 1999; Goffman, 2014), and researchers across disciplines (Ho, 2009; Pollock, 2004; Whyte, 1993 [1943]) have used ethnography as an approach to examine numerous cultural contexts. So what then, is autoethnography?

Autoethnography is typically defined as an approach to research that puts the self at the center of cultural analysis. Chang (2008) asserts that autoethnography “transcends mere narration of self to engage in cultural analysis and interpretation” (p. 43). She continues: “mere self-exposure without profound cultural analysis and interpretation leaves this writing at the level of descriptive autobiography or memoir” (p. 51). Chang categorizes autoethnography into three forms, those that are:

  • Descriptive/self-affirmative
  • Analytical/interpretive
  • Confessional/self-critical (p. 39)

Chang (2008, p. 54) asserts that there are a number of pitfalls to be avoided in doing autoethnography. These include an:

  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.

Some dismiss autoethnography as self-indulgent and narcissistic. By reading examples of autoethnography, one will quickly learn that this does not have to be the case. Autoethnographies that I’ve enjoyed include Goodall’s account of growing up in a family with secrets (Goodall, 2006), Boylorn’s autoethnography of growing up in a southern town (Boylorn, 2013), Bochner’s account of coming to narrative research (Bochner, 2014), Richardson’s tales of everyday life within seven minutes from home (Richardson, 2016), and Anderson’s account of experiencing a life-threatening illness (Anderson, 2017). These autoethnographies use different strategies to represent the authors’ experiences, and draw on a wide range of data in addition to personal recollections – archival research, interviews with others, and observational data. Authors also link their personal accounts to larger cultural contexts and societal issues of importance.

For anyone interested in learning more about how to engage in autoethnographic writing, the writing exercises provided by Chang (2008) are a good place to start. This semester, my students and I have been reading The Handbook of Ethnography (Holman Jones, Adams, & Ellis, 2013 republished by Routledge in 2015). This text provides methodological perspectives from a range of scholars across disciplines. Each section of the book is followed by exemplars of autoethnographic writing. Again, these provide a wide range of examples of what autoethnography might look like, including performative, musical, poetic, visual and narrative representations. There is no single path to doing autoethnography. The journals Qualitative Inquiry and Departures in Critical Qualitative Research are rich sources for autoethnographic writing, and numerous other publications provide further insight and examples of autoethnography, for example, the ethical dimensions of autoethnography (Andrew, 2017), doing collaborative autoethnography (Norris, Sawyer, & Lund, 2012), and performative autoethnography (Spry, 2016). This blogpost has touched the surface of a vibrant tradition within the broader Big Tent of qualitative inquiry.

Kathy Roulston

References

Anderson, P. (2017). Autobiography of a disease. New York & London: Routledge.

Andrew, S. (2017). Searching for an autoethnographic ethic. New York & London: Routledge.

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

Boylorn, R. M. (2013). Sweetwater: Black women and narratives of resilience Peter Lang.

Chang, H. (2008). Autoethnography as method. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Desmond, M. (2016). Evicted: Poverty and profit in the American city. New York: Crown Publishers.

Duneier, M. (1999). Sidewalk. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of cultures. New York: Basic Books.

Geertz, C. (2000). Local knowledge: Further essays in interpretive anthropology (3rd ed.). New York: Basic Books.

Goffman, A. (2014). On the run: Fugitive life in an American city. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

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

Ho, K. (2009). Liquidated: An ethnography of Wall Street. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Holman Jones, S., Adams, T. E., & Ellis, C. (Eds.). (2013). Handbook of autoethnography. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Norris, J., Sawyer, R. D., & Lund, D. (Eds.). (2012). Duoethnography: Dialogic methods for social, health, and educational research. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Pollock, M. (2004). Colormute: Race talk dilemmas in an American school. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Richardson, L. (2016). Seven minutes from home: An American daughter’s story. Netherlands: Sense Publishing.

Spry, T. (2016). Autoethnography and the other: Unsettling power through utopian performatives. New York and London: Routledge.

Whyte, W. F. (1993 [1943]). Street corner society: The social structure of an Italian slum (4th ed.). Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press.

 

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