Tag Archives: research and methods

The Allure of Autoethnography

The three readings this week turned me into autoethnography’s biggest fan. First, there’s “Autoethnography: An Overview” by Carolyn Ellis, Tony E. Adams, and Arthur P. Bochner; the authors explain autoethnography, defining it as a mixture between autobiography and ethnography in which the researchers use their own personal experiences within a culture to understand and analyze that culture. This article also outlines the common criticisms of the method, and it provides examples of different categories of autoethnography. “Whose Story Is It? An Autoethnography Concerning Narrative Identity” by Alec J. Grant and Laetitia Zeeman shows an example of an autoethnography in which Grant uses his memories and reviews his school magazines to explore the culture of the small town he grew up in. He and Zeeman finish the article with a dialogue about the cultural and metaphorical meanings of the short story.  Finally, in “An Autoethnography on Learning About Autoethnography,” Sarah Wall describes the criticisms of autoethnography, explains its roots in postmodernism, and highlights various examples of other researchers who have put this method into practice.

After reading these articles, I feel drawn to use autoethnography for my own research purposes. I like this method because it feels accessible both for researchers and readers, and it seems like it could lessen the gatekeeping that’s found in traditional academia. When describing postmodernism—the philosophy in which autoethnography is rooted—Wall writes, “many ways of knowing and inquiring are legitimate and…no one should be privileged” (147). There’s a lot of privilege hidden in traditional academia; for example, not everyone has the time, money, energy, resources, power, etc., to conduct research. Autoethnography validates your personal experience as being worthy of inclusion in a study, even if your experience doesn’t align with “traditional” scholarly theories (many of which were posited by white men in positions of power and privilege).  

I also like that autoethnography is actually readable. So many of the scholarly articles I’ve read are filled with impossible to decipher academic jargon describing complex academic theories, but autoethnography tempers those complicated theories by using more literary and “evocative” language (Ellis et al.). “Whose Story Is It?”  illustrates this perfectly; Grant’s short story—which uses the literary conventions of a memoir—is engaging and clear, but his academic dialogue with Zeeman is much denser and more challenging to comprehend. 

It seems counterintuitive to keep your research hidden behind nomenclature so confusing that the real people the research affects can barely understand it. The purpose of research shouldn’t be just to discover new information and share it with like-minded academics, but it should also be to use that information to improve people’s lives in a practical, tangible way. Ellis et al. explain how autoethnography views research as a political and socially just act. I imagine that because researchers employing autoethnography are using their actual lived experiences within a culture, their research will result in more practical, useful, and socially just theories because they’ve lived those theories.

However, the problem with using your lived experience in your research is that the people you live with become part of the study, too. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the ethical implications of autoethnography for this reason. Ellis et al. state that to ensure they’re being ethical, researchers can show their work to anyone mentioned in the narrative in order to gain their approval, or the writer can alter names, locations, and other identifying characteristics to protect the privacy of all involved. But I still have questions about the practicalities of those strategies. For example, how prevalent does a character have to be to warrant showing that person the finished narrative (i.e., if you mention someone once or twice, and they’re not central to the narrative, should you still show them your work)? Do you still need to show them the final draft if you’ve already changed their identifying information? And how much can you alter the story before you compromise the integrity of your results? I’m hoping I can find some way to navigate these ethical concerns, because I’d really love to use autoethnography for my own research.