Notes on: Atkinson P. (2006) Rescuing Autoethnography. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography , 35 (4): 400 – 04. DOI: 10.1177/0891241606286980

Dave Harris

This continues Anderson's discussion. Recent debates have been 'couched in oversimplistic contrasts and dichotomies', exaggerating differences with past practices, and 'novelties celebrated, even when things are not all that new'. Autoethnography exemplifies these. Subjective and evocative work minimises the value of analytic ethnography.

Reflexivity implied by autoethnography has been central to ethnography and even a 'key aspect of the ethnographic repertoire' (400). [And lots of examples are cited, where ethnographers have actually been accomplished participants in the study, providing 'a biographically grounded, experientially rich engagement with the social processes that are observable in the field' (401). So there is no need to 'rely exclusively on post-modernist rationales'. Ethnographers have never been 'unrealistically wedded to an ideal of entirely impersonal and dispassionate fieldwork'. Life history has been used in ethnography for a long time, and that has always depended on 'close dialogic relationships with individuals', and has often produced 'jointly produced accounts'. Autoethnographic elements appear above all in the Chicago traditions. There is an underlying assumption there that there is 'homology between the social actors were being studied in the social actor who is making sense of their actions' (402). This is fundamental to ethnography especially to its 'reflexivity', that is 'the ineluctable fact that the ethnographer is thoroughly implicated in the phenomena that he or she documents'. There can be no state of nature independent of observation. Autoethnographic work implies personal engagement.

However, autobiography has been elevated 'to such a degree that the ethnographer becomes more memorable than the ethnography, the self more absorbing than other social actors'. It is now necessary to insist on an analytic purpose, instead of 'experiential value, it's evocative qualities, and its personal commitments rather than its scholarly purpose, its theoretical bases, and its disciplinary contributions' (402 – 3). Issues of methodology have been 'transposed' into matters of personal experience, research becomes 'a quest for personal fulfilment', texts tend to look inward at the 'personal and emotional life of the ethnographer – as – author'. They may lead to social criticism but this 'does not excuse are essentially self absorbed nature: personal is political, but the personal does not exhaust or subsume all aspects of the political' (403). In particular 'we need to guard against any implicit assumption that self transformation is the main outcome of such research processes. "Others" remain infinitely more interesting and sociologically significant'.

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