The Parkmore Institute asked Professor Clarke to provide an introduction to the methodology of autoethnography, because this is an approach to writing a doctoral project that might be useful to some of the Institute’s Candidates. Professor Clarke kindly provides a quite extensive bibliography of what she considers important references in this field.
Autoethnography has multiple meanings (Reed-Danahay, 1997) but largely refers to both the methods and product of researching and writing about personal lived-experiences and their relationships to culture (Ellis, 2004; Ellis, Adams &Bochner, 2011). Autoethnography or “auto” meaning self; “ethno” meaning culture(s) or people(s); and “graphy” meaning a representation, description, or showing (Ellis &Bochner, 2006, p. 112) is a process and product, text and method (Ellis, 2004; Reed-Danahay 1997). Defining autoethnography poses a huge challenge as the term cannot be collapsed into a single style, method, or practice; texts and practices that fall under this umbrella term are varied, not always labeled, and often contested (Anderson, 2006; Denzin, 2006, 2010; Ellis &Bochner, 2006; Holman Jones, 2005). David Hayano (1979) is credited with originating the term autoethnography to describe studies by anthropologists of their own cultures. However, the meaning and application of autoethnography has evolved beyond Hayano’s original definition in a manner that makes it difficult to make a precise definition (Ellingson & Ellis, 2008).
“Autoethnography is a research approach that privileges the individual” (Muncey, 2010, p.2). Autoethnographers are positioned as “boundary-crossers” (Reed-Danahay, 1997), and seek “to show and tell by collapsing the lines that separate theories and stories, personal and political, objective and subjective, self and other” (Blinne, 2012, p. 962). Ellis and Bochner (2000) describe “autobiographies that self-consciously explore the interplay of the introspective, personally engaged self with cultural descriptions mediated through language, history, and ethnographic explanation” (p. 742). Autoethnographers research themselves in relation to others and should display layers of consciousness, connecting the personal to the cultural (Ellis &Bochner, 2000) . Autoethnography involves the “turning of the ethnographic gaze inward on the self (auto), while maintaining the outward gaze of ethnography, looking at the larger context where in self experiences occur” (Denzin, 1997, p. 227). To look inward with radical honesty can be a vulnerable and valuable process. An important distinction between autoethnography and ethnography is “self-awareness about and reporting of one’s own experiences and introspections as a primary data source” (Patton, 2002, p.86).
Autoethnography is an emerging qualitative research method that allows the author to write in a highly personalized style, drawing on his or her experience to extend understanding about a societal phenomenon (Wall, 2006). Autoethnography can be used as a “method of inquiry, a way of finding out about yourself and your topic” (Richardson, 2000, p.923). Autoethnography is grounded in postmodern philosophy and is linked to a growing debate about reflectivity and voice in social research. The intent of autoethnography is to acknowledge the inextricable link between the personal and the cultural and to make room for nontraditional forms of inquiry and expression (Wall, 2006).
Spry (2007) describes autoethnography as a means of achieving personal transformation when the researcher places their experiences within the larger context of society by means of critical self-reflection and subverting an oppressive dominant discourse. “The researcher is a very visible social actor in the written text, including his or her feelings and experiences and how they are changed to vital data that contribute to understanding the social world being described” (Mertens, 2015, p. 244). Autoethnography focuses specifically on self-consciousness and reflexivity; hence, it makes sense to use criteria for judging quality that reflect rigor, both in terms of method and comprehensiveness to an amateur audience (Mertens, 2015). Goodall (2000) describes the “new autoethnography” as “creative narratives shaped out of a writer’s personal experiences within a culture and addressed to academic and public audience” (p. 9).
Autoethnography is a way to oppose otherness (Richards, 2008) due to its power to witness moments of ethnic otherness and resist them. It confronts dominant forms of representation and power in an attempt to reclaim, through self-reflection, representational spaces that exclude or marginalize certain individuals and groups (Tierney, 1998). Autoethnography can be seen as a social constructionist project that rejects binary oppositions between researcher and researched, objectivity and subjectivity, process and product, self and others, art and science and the personal and the political (Ellingson & Ellis, 2008). Autoethnography is referred to as “action research for the individual” (Ellis &Bochner, 2000, p. 754). Despite the contingencies and difficulties of writing towards and for liberation, some autoethnographers use personal experience to describe cultural experiences with the explicit goal of changing experience; they “write to right” (Bolen, 2012) and to go “against the current social order” (DeLeon, 2010, p. 409).
The emergence of autoethnography as a method of inquiry moves researchers’ “use of self-observation as part of the situation studied to self-introspection or self-ethnography as a legitimate focus of study in and of itself” (Ellis 1991, p. 30). New epistemologies, such as autoethnography, from previously silenced groups remove the risks inherent in the representation of other’s allowance for the production of new knowledge by an individual researcher, and offer small-scale knowledge that can inform specific problems and specific situations (Denzin & Lincoln, 1994). “Doing autoethnography involves a back-and-forth movement between experiencing and examining a vulnerable self and observing and revealing the broader context of that experience” (Ellis, 2007, p. 14).
Autoethnography as described by Jones, Adams, Ellis, (2013) is a unique and compelling method that includes: 1) disrupting norms of research practice and representation; 2) working from insider knowledge; 3) maneuvering through pain, confusion, anger, and uncertainty and making life better; 4) breaking silence / (re-) claiming voice and “writing to right” (Bolen, 2012); and 5) making work accessible.
Although autoethnographies are categorized under the same methodology, there are variations in the types of autoethnographies one can do. Newer types of autoethnographies include: meta-autoethnography (Ellis, 2009, p. 12), collaborative autoethnography (Chang, Ngunjiri, & Hernandez, 2012), duoethnography (Norris & Sawyer, 2012), and interpretive autoethnography (Denzin, 2014), co-constructed decolonizing autoethnography (Diversi& Moreira, 2009; Hepworth Clarke, 2015), among many others.
Wall (2006) described, the foundations of autoethnography involve:
The questioning of the dominant scientific paradigm, the making of room for other ways of knowing, and the growing emphasis on the power of research to change the world [and] create a space for the sharing of unique, subjective, and evocative stories of experience that contribute to our understating of the social world and allow us to reflect on what could be different because of what we have learned. (p. 3)
Wall (2006) asserts that autoethnography holds “emancipatory promise” against traditional science (p. 3). It is important to have research methods that can provide deep analysis and understanding of diverse human experiences.
Autoethnography is a method positioned to embrace subjectivity, engage critical self-reflexivity, speak rather than being spoken for, interrogate power, and resist oppression (Calafell&Moreman, 2009; Denzin, 1997; Jones, 2005; Warren, 2001). Autoethnographic “other stories” (Calafell&Moreman, 2009) can “[work] against systemic forces such as racism, sexism, heterosexism, and classism from the perspectives of women of color remain rare” (Griffin, 2012, p. 142). Autoethnography can be utilized in order to contribute to gaps in literature by exploring topics, perspectives and narratives that have yet to be centered. “Autoethnography can also provide a potent means of mounting epistemological challenges, for it offers up space for dissenting voices to question whether supposedly universal, neutral, rational knowledge is in fact highly partial and particularist, merely serving to reinforce dominant discourses” (Allen-Collinson, 2013, p. 290). Further controversial topics that are difficult to express through other methods can be addressed through autoethnographies.
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