Notes on: Sparkes, A. (2000)  Autoethnography and Narratives of Self: Reflections on Criteria in Action. Sociology of Sport Journal 17: 21–43

Dave Harris

Sparks begins by quoting Krizek: '"many of us "do" ethnography but "write" in the conservative voice of science"' (21). Autoethnography challenges accepted views about authorship and find it difficult to 'keep their voices out of the reports they produce'. As a result they have 'begun to produce… "Forbidden narratives"' (22). It faces a challenge, but there are well-established alternatives, including Denzin and Richardson. Autoethnographers just see it as recognising what has always been the case, that sociologists have always 'written themselves into their research accounts', consciously or not.

There is a problem with evaluating such personal writing, judging what is a good story for example. This has affected Denzin's 'fifth moment of qualitative enquiry'. Individual reviewers have reported the difficulties — '"what — precisely — would have to be added to transform story material from the journalistic literary to the academic and theoretically enriching?"' (23). Evocative narratives are particularly difficult and raise concerns about validity — can engaged and involved researchers accurately portray the experiences of others?. It seems something must be added to a good story to avoid 'deep suspicion and fear of "personal accounts"' (24).

Boundaries in the academic world are socially constructed, and specific criteria are required for legitimation. We can explore an actual case, to reveal complexities and tensions in applying criteria — one of his own articles.

It was published but six reviewers made comments on the story [about how his own current body compares poorly against an earlier sport performing body with a flaw — a back problem]. He set out to explore emotional dimensions and consequences and produced a 'fragmented and disruptive study'. He used 'facts, facticities and fiction' the submitted article was 'sandwiched between heavily theorised introduction and ending' turning on narratives as understanding body self relationships.

The reviewers commented in various ways [and they are reproduced in some detail]. One reviewer said that the writing had become 'less vivid… More distanced', especially as it reviewed the literature. Academic props could be reduced. Reviewer 2 saw is more harmonious where biographical and emotional stuff linked smoothly with the sociological, especially when critiquing binaries. Reviewer 3 found the theoretical discourse 'appropriate', but saw it as tackling a topic that was already well addressed — '"several other authors have already scripted similar terrain"' (26) an emphasis on masculinity was recommended. Reviewer 4 found a parallel with Sartre and introspection, and asks for '"more particular tribute to these early investigators"' and more explicit reference to "'Sartre's third ontological dimension of the body"'. Reviewer 5 enjoyed the paper [as they all did] and like the mix of materials — it was '"personal without the narcissistic quality"' (27). However, they did not like calling the final section an epilogue, because it was a literature review not a resolution of the personal story. Reviewer 6 started by saying they were not impressed by single person narratives, saw the essays rambling, and not original. There is insufficient discussion of bodies in social contexts, but generally, single case studies do not make good sociology — this was '"sociologising"', and of dubious scholarship.

We can see tensions and contradictions in these remarks. He agrees that the piece was shaped by assumptions about academic work and that to offer a fragmented story was to take chances — hence he needed to be 'protected by heavily theorised introduction and closing section' (28). This could be seen as an attempt to 'limit interpretive options'. This was actually a comfortable framework, not unknown in professional journals. He felt that his good story was not enough and that scholarship had to be signalled. This is what theoretical discourse did.

The remarks about the single case study as inadequate was 'the voice of traditional science that is committed to "rationality," "objectivity" and a range of dualisms'. This position has been critiqued. It is inappropriate to use criteria on different forms of enquiry.

His article was further discussed in terms of how we might judge it. Garrett and Hodkinson [who they?] Illustrated the dangers of applying 'inappropriate foundational criteria, such as plausibility and credibility, as advocated by the neorealist Hammersley'. Judgements of plausibility must refer to our own existing knowledge, and this is clearly difficult with highly subjective accounts. The same goes with accuracy to existing research. They ask instead '"does this account work for us? Do we find it to be believable and evocative on the basis of our own experiences?"' (29) [oh dear].

What about credibility? This involves a judgement about accuracy, which points us to evidence and methodology, but this is inappropriate if we deny that accuracy is the issue [as he did] as compared with 'literary criteria of coherence, verisimilitude and interest'. Garrett and Hodkinson again say that if we are using Hammersley's criteria and not 'feelings of trust and the experience of the reader in participating with the text', Autoethnography will always be classed as not research [dead right — the reference is Hammersley 1992 What's Wrong with Ethnography].

Criteria used in judging one sort of work should not be imposed on others. It risks 'the form intellectual imperialism builds failure in from the start'. It will leave the research community having to show allegiance to particular paradigmatic positions and refusing other contributions. Instead we should follow 'an ethical imperative' to listen carefully and try to understand work 'in alien traditions' neither assimilating them into our own categories or simply dismissing them. The point is [citing Bernstein 1991] to do justice to what genuinely different. This is not the same as '"indifferent superficial tolerance"' but should be an effort to '"understand and engage the incommensurable otherness of the 'Other'"' [impossible of course].

This is problematic the qualitative research especially Autoethnography. There may be soon be a backlash based on seeing the genre as 'self-conscious navelgazing' and overvaluing the worth of the self. 'Academic gatekeeping' can result (30), excepting only work which has 'the proper academic subject'. Traces of these charges of self-indulgence can be seen in the reviewers comments, especially in 2 and 5. One of his male colleagues described his efforts as 'an "academic wank"'.

He hoped his return to theory would saving from these charges, perhaps subconsciously. However there are serious points. Personal and emotional research 'challenges male dominant conventions', for example. They can usefully be combined with 'public theoretical and rational'criteria because the subjective 'is simultaneously objective and public' [but is personal writing?]. It is important intellectual work, it helps us learn about others because we share subjective experiences. Narcissism refers to breaking an old dualism between the individual and the social, 'a reductive practice that asserts the autobiographical to be only about the self of the writer' [what idiot claimed that?]. The point is to criticise binaries between self and other, by stressing shared culture. Accusations of narcissism assume that that's how readers see it as well. This is a common view of the reader as 'universal, passive, unengaged' (31) see texts as an instrument, a tool offering technical precision, a literal description of reality.

Literary narrative text by contrast prompt 'conspiracy that encourages the reader to engage in the activities of textual re-creation and dismantling'. Bochner and Ellis agree on the need to encourage readers to '"feel, care and desire"' [this assumes that they will, and not laugh or feel superior] [There is an assumption here that personal texts do not position the reader]. His writing was intended to encourage 'empathy and solidarity as well as emancipatory moments'. One reviewer at least grasped this, and some others did say that he should cut the theory.

He rewrote it. He decided to write off reviewer 6. It was more difficult to respond to the different demands for more or less theory. Eventually decided to tell a story about the problems encountered in writing the paper and how the reviews raised issues for him. He reduce the theoretical opening and devoted the majority of the paper to the story, followed by his own reflections on the 'performative elements of the storytelling' [apparently acting himself as a multiple reader pointing out the ambiguity in the story]. He wrote the last sections 'in a stop start fragmentary and apparently unfocused manner with a view to unsettling readers' (33). He integrated theory into each of these set questions by referring to other authors, but supporting his story. This left plenty of gaps for the reader. He thought of another Autoethnography who hoped that readers would also add their own stories and set up a conversation.

Since publication reactions have been varied. Some echo the reviewers. Most of the mentioned connections to other stories. Some seem to have responded to the invitation 'into a vicarious experience'. Some might have experienced a greater range of life in the round, or a heightened sensitivity.

Evocation might be a particularly important criterion, as Ellis argues. Validity here means 'whether it evokes in the reader a feeling that the experience described is authentic, believable, and possible''(35 [entirely abstract, course in the absence of any research. Ellis is asked whether readers felt a conversational response, whether they had learned anything about patterns and connections, whether it's spoke to their situation, whether it was useful in managing and experience and so on.

Many of his students who read this piece responded. One decided to produce and Autoethnography about sporting injuries through his dissertation topic, and in the intro says that Sparkes's article 'held his attention more than any other journal article had previously, citing the style, the honesty, the way it struck chords with his own life. Overall, many readers accepted his narrative as 'believable and us having fidelity'. This is a criterion 'that links both social science and art together' [followed by discussion of aesthetics in art]

We can incorporate 'more literary forms of judgements in the social sciences' (35). Of course, there is inconsistency in disagreement about criteria thereto, and literary reviewers can also be dogmatic and inflexible, but a colleague working in the English Department in another university sent him a poem in support.

There are still issues in some of the subsequent discussions. Coffey saw it as a new wave of autobiographical writing, seeing herself and the social field as interconnected. The literary turn is supported by movements 'such as 'post-modernism and feminism'which is made boundary definition less clear. However, the boundaries between ethnography and autobiography are still unclear. His work might lead to 'a new form of ethnographic practice', more appropriate for '"peopled, polyvocal social worlds"', but others will think that it still does not count as ethnography.

The search for criteria persists. It is associated 'with the twin crises of representation and legitimation'. It challenges 'the ideology of "epistemic criteria"', fixed rules, old moral and political frameworks. It encourages openness and 'a willingness to change', so criteria become 'enabling conditions' permitting further deliberation (37). It breaks with external reference points or facts and makes agreement 'a practical and moral' matter [but for some reason this means there will be '"a willingness to engage in a free and open exchange of reasoned arguments"', instead of the imposition of dogma as with the Denzin crowd]

Criteria can mean foundational standards, or 'characterising trait' [which seems to be conformity to the way other researchers work, but not as compulsory]. We must be open to constant reinterpretation because criteria change over time. We can add or subtract from lists. These should be 'non-foundational' (38) in order to not replace one dogma with another. To do so would result in 'the Balkanisation of the research community' (38). This may involve not using any prior universal criteria for fear of imposing 'artificial categories of judgement, preconceptions… A framework of the a prioriconditions that may be impossible or appropriate to meet' [this is what will happen in practice, but they will now not need to be made explicit'. Criteria should be 'enabling conditions', in a 'polyvocal research community'. We might combine various criteria, all new ones as Autoethnography's become more important.

Any 'tensions, contradictions, conflicts, and differences of interpretation… Should not cause undue anxiety' [easy for a professor to say]. Diversity should be taken positively as a need to deepen understanding and sharpen judgements. Autoethnographic articles might particularly stimulate this sort of thing

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