Notes on : Ellis, C, Adams, T and Bochner, A (2011). Autoethnography: An Overview. Historical Social Research, 36 (4), 273 – 90.

Dave Harris

Autoethnography is 'an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyse… personal experience… In order to understand cultural experience' (273) it challenges 'canonical' ways of doing research. Research must be treated as 'a political, socially just and socially conscious act'. Both autobiography and ethnography are used. Autoethnography is 'both process and product' [so we already see several possibly incompatible elements of the definition].

The post-modernist crisis led to chances to reform social science. There was increasing doubt towards conventional 'ontological, epistemological, and axiological limitations' in particular, facts and truths were 'inextricably tied to the vocabularies and paradigms the scientists used to represent them', (274) citing Kuhn and Rorty. Master universal narratives were questioned [by DeCerteau as well as Lyotard they say]. Authors, audiences and texts were re-thought [Barthes, Derrida and Radway this time]. Stories were complex and constitutive, introducing new ways of thinking and feeling and helping people 'make sense of themselves and others'. There is a need to 'resist colonialist, sterile research impulses', where cultural members are exploited and writings about them led to 'monetary and/or professional gain'. There were potentials if we thought social sciences were closer to literature than physics, 'proffered stories rather than theories' and were 'consciously value centred'. Autoethnography seemed a positive response to these critiques and to be capable of producing 'meaningful, accessible, and evocative research grounded in personal experience' that would help 'sensitise readers to issues of identity politics, to experiences shrouded in silence, and to forms of representation that deepen our capacity to empathise with people'. There is a recognition that personal experience influences the research process anyway — deciding what to research and how. These were also 'necessarily tied to institutional requirements (e.g. Institutional Review Boards, resources… and personal circumstance'. Researchers could also change names and places, 'compress years of research into a single text' and follow a predetermined construction for the study — introduction, literature review, findings et cetera. Some people still think researchers can be neutral in personal and objective [including Atkinson and Delmont] but 'most now recognise that such an assumption is not tenable' [including Bochner, Denzin and Lincoln and Rorty again]. We now acknowledge the need to accommodate 'subjectivity, emotionality, and the researchers influence on research' [yet curiously, this piece seems to be written precisely from a neutral impersonal and objective stance, without acknowledging the subjectivity or emotionality of the writers].

There is now [?] a recognition that 'different kinds of people possess different assumptions about the world', while conventional research was 'narrow, limiting and parochial'(275). Differences might be traceable to race, gender, sexuality, ability, class, education or religion. Insisting on canonical forms is to advocate 'a White, masculine, heterosexual, middle/upper class, Christian, able-bodied perspective' which implies that any other way of knowing is unsatisfactory and invalid. Autoethnography has a wider approach without rigid definitions of what is meaningful or useful: we attempt to understand how people we are studying can influence our interpretations and our conclusions.

The process or method combines autobiography and ethnography. Autobiography is necessarily selective, involving hindsight, and not necessarily interested in published documents. Writers might also interview others and consult photographs or other recordings to 'help with recall'. A common theme is epiphany — 'remembered moments perceived to have significantly impacted the trajectory of a person's life… Times of existential crisis… Events after which life does not seem quite the same' [ie critical incidents]. These are self claimed and might be entirely personal but they also reveal 'ways a person' could negotiate similar situations and effects.

Ethnography means looking at relational practices, common values and beliefs in a culture in order to better understand it. Participant observation is a common technique to record the researchers and participants engagement. There may also be interviews, examination of ways of speaking and relating, uses of space and place, or the meaning of artefacts and texts. Autoethnographers 'retrospectively and selectively write about epiphanies that stem from, or are made possible by, being part of a culture and/or by possessing a particular cultural identity'. However 'social science publishing conventions' (276) require analysis. Otherwise, it might just be seen as telling a story — '"but people do that on Oprah… Why is your story more valid than anyone else's? What makes your story more valid is that you are a researcher. You have a set of theoretical and methodological tools and the research literature to use… If you can't frame it around these tools in literature and just frame it as my story, then why or how should I privilege your story over anyone else's"' [a personal interview with somebody called Mitch Allen]. [It's not just following silly conventions, though, which could be done through impression management?] — Autoethnographers 'must use personal experience to illustrate facets of cultural experience, and, in so doing, make characteristics of a culture familiar for insiders and outsiders… Comparing and contrasting personal experience against existing research' as well as analysing texts or artefacts.

There is an expectation of possessing 'a fine command of the print medium', presenting 'within a performative social science approach'. Autobiography should be 'aesthetic and evocative, engage readers, and use conventions of storytelling such as character, scene, and plot development' sometimes even 'fragmented story progression' [that is should deploy realist conventions]. It should add value by 'finding and filling a "gap" in existing related storylines' (277). It might deploy showing to bring readers into the scene or to get them to'" experience an experience"'. Conversation might be used 'to make events engaging and emotionally rich' we might use telling as well as showing as 'an efficient way to convey information needed to appreciate what is going on'. Autobiographies can also make texts 'artful and evocative by altering authorial points of view' — sometimes first person, sometimes an eyewitness account, or second person where the reader is brought into a seen as a witness, or where moments are 'felt too difficult to claim'. Even third person can be used to establish context report findings, present what others do. The aim is to produce thick description, to help understand the culture for insiders and outsiders. This is 'created by (inductively) discerning patterns of cultural experience — repeated feelings, stories, and happenings — as evidenced by field notes, interviews, and/or artefacts' [so you allude to these patterns without actually bothering to demonstrate them with anything quantitative? There is no need to test these inductions eg with descriptive statistics? Not even to demonstrate discrimination, say? -- so people can still explain patterns in their own ways -- oppression for some, evil for others etc]. These patterns are first discerned and then described. 'Accessible texts' are produced, aiming at 'more diverse mass audiences the traditional research usually disregards, a move that can make personal and social change is possible for the more people' [based on incorrigible common sense understandings, and another appeal in effect to the converted]

Different forms of Autoethnography reflect different emphasis on studies of others, researchers self, interactions with others, 'traditional analysis and the interview context, as well as on power relationships' (278). There are 'indigenous/native ethnographies' which 'developed from colonised or economically subordinated people, and are used to address and disrupt power in research, particularly a (outside) researcher's right and authority to study (exotic) others. This disrupts white masculine et cetera narratives and now that indigenous ethnographers are telling their own stories 'they no longer find (forced) subjugation excusable' [citing Denzin and Lincoln]. There are 'narrative ethnographies, texts presented as stories which incorporate the researcher's own experiences into the accounts of others, with an emphasis especially on 'encounters between the narrator and members of the groups being studied'. There are 'reflexive, dyadic interviews' focusing on the dynamics of the interview itself: the focus is on the participant, but the thoughts and feelings of the researcher are also discussed, and this 'adds context and layers to the story'. Reflexive ethnographies 'document ways researchers change as a result of doing fieldwork' and range from starting up research to ethnographic memoirs or '"confessional tales"', focusing on the 'ethnographers backstage research endeavours'. Accounts are often layered with author experience alongside data on more abstract analysis and literature. These illustrate how data collection and analysis are simultaneous, and research is a matter of questions and comparisons not the pursuit of truth. Unlike grounded theory, however layered accounts 'use vignettes, reflexivity, multiple voices, and introspection' (279) to involve readers in emergent processes: 'evocative concrete texts' as important as abstract analyses. Interactive interviews provide in depth understanding of experiences 'with emotionally charged and sensitive topics'. They are [not should be?] collaborative where researchers and participants investigate issues together. Issues can 'transpire, in conversation, about particular topics (e.g., eating disorders)'. There can be multiple interview sessions and relationships between participants and researchers are important. The stories each person brings are supplemented by 'what can be learned from interaction'[not critique of course]. Community Autoethnographers involve collaboration to 'illustrate how a community manifests particular social/cultural issues (e.g., whiteness)'. They also build communities and make interventions of a cultural and social kind possible. Co-constructed narratives focus on relational experiences and how people collaboratively cope with ambiguities and uncertainties in social relations. Relations are seen as jointly authored, incomplete, historically situated. The epiphany sometimes features — somebody writes their experience and then those sharing react to the story 'that the other wrote at the same time'. Personal narratives involve authors who see themselves as the phenomenon and write evocative narratives, 'specifically focused on their academic, research, and personal lives'. These are particularly controversial 'if not accompanied by more traditional analysis and/or connections to scholarly literature' [hinting at impression management again]. They try to understand selves intersecting with cultural contexts and other participants. Again readers are invited to enter the authors world in order to 'reflect on, understand, and cope with their own lives'.

Writing is a way of knowing [citing Richardson], so personal stories can be therapeutic, and challenge conventional stories about how ideal social selves should live. This helps us understand better our relationships and encourages 'personal responsibility and agency'. It also raises consciousness and promotes cultural change, gives people a voice. This can be therapeutic for participants and readers — thus early feminist work [Freidan] attempted to find a voice for women constrained by domestic housework. Sharing stories was therapeutic and also 'motivated significant cultural change'. Personal stories help make '"witnessing" possible', where people 'testify on behalf of an event, problem or experience', or disclose a secret [the examples are lovely -- government conspiracy, the isolation felt after an illness and 'harmful gender norms']. Autoethnographers 'work with others to validate the meaning of their pain' and help participants and readers to feel validated and 'better able to cope with or want to change their circumstances'.

Research is not done in isolation and researchers have social networks, so others are implicated [and here is an acute example for academics — anti-smoking campaigns may lead to a reduction of funds from tobacco companies]. Both communities and participants are often identifiable, and sometimes these are 'close, intimate others', family or neighbours. Sometimes 'interpersonal ties' develop with participants, friendships, and this means we don't just mine people for data but consider ethical issues [and biases?]. These relational matters are crucial and 'must be kept uppermost'. Sometimes we show our work to others who are implicated and allow them to respond, sometimes we have to protect privacy and safety. Anyway, 'the essence and meaningfulness of the research story is more important than the precise recounting of detail' (282), although we must be aware that this might influence the integrity of research. However, researchers have to 'be able to continue to live in the world of relationships'.

There is 'narrative truth based on a story of experience does — how it is used, understood, and responded to for and by us and others' [what if this involves contradictory responses or understandings?]. We fully acknowledge contingency, and the fallibility of memory, and that the meaning of events can differ. Thus 'when terms such as reliability, validity, and generalisability are applied to Autoethnography, the context, meaning and utility of these terms are altered' [we are not going to use conventional checks on thinsg like chance or memory]. Reliability actually refers 'to the narrator's credibility' — could they have had those experiences they claim, did these events actually happen or has the narrator 'taken "literary licence" to the point that the story is better viewed as fiction than a truthful account' [so many issues here]. Validity 'means that work seeks verisimilitude; it evokes in readers a feeling that the experience described is lifelike, believable, and possible, a feeling that what has been represented could be true'. This depends on the coherence of the story and how it connects readers to writers, how it preserves continuity. Above all, a story should enable readers to enter the subjective world of the writer 'even if this world does not "match reality"' [citing Plummer]. We judge Autoethnography in terms of whether they help readers communicate with different others, improve the lives of participants, and provide a useful story [useful to whom?] [These are all abstract criteria that cannot possibly be tested — how do we know what 'readers' make about texts? Presumably, they mean significant readers that we can go and ask]. Generalisability is also important although the focus is not respondents but readers: readers are always testing the account to see if it speaks to them about their experiences, and 'it is determined by whether the (specific) Autoethnographers are able to illuminate (general) unfamiliar cultural processes… Readers provide validation by comparing their lives to ours… And by feeling that the stories have informed them about unfamiliar people or lives' (283) [so much depends on how gullible or naive the readers are?].

Autoethnographers should not be criticised using the same standards as canonical work either in traditional ethnography, 'or in the performance arts' such as autobiographical writing. Autoethnography is often criticised for being either too artful or too scientific [no one is actually cited here] [so the answer is just to  blur the distinction between the two, rely on one when the other is under question?]. In particular it's often dismissed by social scientific standards as being insufficiently 'rigorous, theoretical, and analytical, and too aesthetic, emotional, and therapeutic'. The samples too small, fieldwork not extensive enough, personal experiences seen as 'supposedly biased data'[well are they or not?] and Autoethnographers are seen as narcissists who 'don't fulfil scholarly obligations'. But the error is to see art and science is at odds with each other. Autoethnography disrupts this binary. Autoethnographers 'believe research can be rigorous, theoretical, and analytical and emotional, therapeutic, and inclusive' [but are they right to believe this? Is it just a belief?]. They also value research which is evocative and aesthetic. 'One can write in aesthetically compelling ways without citing fiction or being educated as a literary or performance scholar' [good old amateurism]. The most important issue is 'who reads our work, how they affected by it, and how does it keep a conversation going' [the same criteria as advertising copy, political propaganda, soap operas].

There are methodological differences so it is 'futile to debate whether Autoethnography is a valid research process or product' (284). If we cannot agree on a goal, we cannot agree on criteria. Autoethnographers just 'take a different point of view' about social science, and, citing Rorty, we should not resolve these differences but just live with them. 'Autoethnographers view research and writing is socially just acts; rather than a preoccupation with accuracy, the goal is to produce analytical, accessible texts that change us and the world we live in for the better' [although we are not going to ever test these outcomes, or even pursue them. We announce them and this justifies what we do]

[Lots of references to their own work and the usual Denzin tribe]

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