Autoethnography as a research method: Advantages, limitations and criticisms
La autoetnografía como un método de investigación: ventajas, limitaciones y críticas
Universidad de Quintana Roo
*Mariza Méndez, PhD. from the University of Nottingham, England (2008-2011), and M.A in Educational Psychology from the University of Havana, Cuba (2000). She teaches TESOL at the University of Manchester, England (2001) and is Technical Secretariat of Research and Graduate Studies in the Division of Political Science and Humanities at University of Quintana Roo, Mexico. Her research interests include affective factors in the process of learning a foreign language, learning strategies and motivation. She has published books, book chapters and articles on these topics in national and international journals.
Received 21-Jun-2013/Accepted: 12-Nov-2013
The aim of this article is to review the literature on autoethnography as a research method. It will first describe what is meant by autoethnography, or evocative narratives, and consider the particular features of this type of method. The paper will go on to explore the advantages, limitations and criticisms this research method has endured since its emergence during the 1980s. Finally, the different approaches to the evaluation of autoethnography will be reviewed.
Keywords: Autoethnography, Research methods, Narrative writing.
El propósito de este artículo es analizar la literatura sobre autoetnografía como método de investigación. Primero se describirá lo que significa el término autoetnografía o narrativa evocativa, y se analizarán las características principales de este método de investigación. Posteriormente el artículo explora las ventajas, limitaciones y críticas que este método ha enfrentado desde su surgimiento durante la época de los 80s. Finalmente, los diferentes enfoques utilizados para evaluar una autoetnografía serán examinados.
Palabras clave: Autoetnografía, Métodos de investigación, Escritura Narrativa.
Cet article se donne pour objectif de réviser la littérature sur l'utilisation de l'autoethnographie comme une méthodologie de recherche. Dans la première partie il décrive qu'est-ce que c'est l'autoethnographie, ou bien les récits évocateurs, en considérant les particularités de cette méthode. Postérieurement, l'article explore les avantages, les limitations et les critiques que cette méthodologie a endurée depuis son apparition dans les années 80. Il conclut avec la révision de différentes approches pour l'évaluation de l'autoethnographie.
Mots-clés: Auto-ethnographie, Méthodes de recherche, L'écriture narrative.
I conducted a qualitative study in order to understand students' everyday language learning emotions and their influence on their motivation in 2009. In particular, I wanted to examine how students react to emotional events in classrooms and how these reactions affect their motivational behaviour in daily classes. A qualitative method of inquiry which helped me in this purpose is narrative writing, because it focuses on researching "...into an experience..." (Clandinin and Connelly, 2000, p. 50). According to Clandinin and Connelly, narrative writing allows researchers to question internal conditions such as feelings and emotions, external conditions such as the environment and the temporal dimensions of past, present and future. Thus, autoethnography was first used to explore my emotional experiences in my language learning history in order sensitise myself to the topic of my investigation and also to find out about participants' motivation and the way emotional experiences shaped it (Méndez 2012; Méndez and Peña, 2013). Autoehtnographies or personal narratives have been used in language classrooms to find out about future teachers identity, self-concept and motivation (Macalister, 2012; Masako, 2013; Ruohotie-Lyhty, 2013). Although autoethnography as a research method was an unknown and difficult tool for me to use, understanding my own experience was a stage of the research process that later allowed me to interpret my participants experiences and represent them through writing. As pointed out by Kyratzis and Green (1997):
…narrative research entails a double narrative process, one that includes the narratives generated by those participating in the research, and one that represents the voice of the researcher as narrator of those narratives (p. 17).
Autoethnography as a researchmethod
The underlying assumption of qualitative research is that reality and truth are constructed and shaped through the interaction between people and the environment in which they live (Silverman, 2000; Freebody, 2003). According to Denzin and Lincoln (2000) "...qualitative researchers study things in their natural settings, attempting to make sense of, or to interpret, phenomena in terms of the meaning people bring to them" (p. 3). Although a qualitative approach opposes the positivist standpoint that assumes that reality is objective and independent from the researcher, it has been accepted as a valuable practice of research. Qualitative research employs a variety of methods which imply a humanistic stance in which phenomena under investigation are examined through the eyes and experiences of individual participants (Creswell, 2009; Merriam, 2009). It is because of this particular approach to inquiry that personal narratives, experiences and opinions are valuable data which provide researchers with tools to find those tentative answers they are looking for (Marshall and Rossman, 1999).
Qualitative research has historically developed over time (Denzin and Lincoln, 2000). In the traditional period (the early 1900s), researchers aimed at presenting an objective account of their field experiences. The modernist period (from the post-war years to the 1970s) was characterised by researchers' concerns about formalising qualitative research to be as rigorous as quantitative research. The period of blurred genres (1970-1986) was characterised by the diverse research strategies and formats used by qualitative researchers. During the ‘crisis of representation' period (the mid-1980s), autoethnography emerged due to "the calls to place greater emphasis on the ways in which the ethnographer interacts with the culture being researched" (Holt, 2003, p. 18). Thus, autoethnography allows researchers to draw on their own experiences to understand a particular phenomenon or culture. As mentioned before my own autoethnography was the first instrument I used in order to understand my participants' personal narratives about their emotions and motivation to learn a foreign language. Telling my personal story made me reflect on my language learning history and empathise with my students' emotional experiences and reactions. As emphasised by Barkhuizen and Wette (2008)
In telling their stories of experience teachers necessarily reflect on those experiences and thus make meaning of them; that is, they gain an understanding of their teaching knowledge and practice. (p. 374)
Autoethnography is a useful qualitative research method used to analyse people's lives, a tool that Ellis and Bochner (2000) define as "...an autobiographical genre of writing that displays multiple layers of consciousness, connecting the personal to the cultural" (p. 739). There are different uses of the term and it varies according to the relations between the researcher's personal experience and the phenomenon under investigation (Foster et al., 2006). Autoethnography can range from research about personal experiences of a research process to parallel exploration of the researcher's and the participants' experiences and about the experience of the researcher while conducting a specific piece of research (Ellis and Bochner, 2000, Maso, 2001).
McIlveen (2008) states that the core feature of autoethnography ‘…entails the scientist or practitioner performing narrative analysis pertaining to himself or herself as intimately related to a particular phenomenon' (p. 3). Thus, it is not just writing about oneself, it is about being critical about personal experiences in the development of the research being undertaken, or about experiences of the topic being investigated. Reed-Danahay (Reed-Danahay, 1997, pp. 3-4) assigns three main characteristics to autoethnography: (1) The role of the autoethnographer in the narrative: is the autoethnographer an insider or an outsider of the phenomenon being described? (2) Whose voice is being heard: who is speaking, the people under investigation or the researcher? (3) Cultural displacement: some realities are being described by people who have been displaced from their natural environment due to political or social issues. Although autoethnography can be approached with different focuses, I would like to adhere to the description given by Ellis (2007), who states that, ‘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 (p. 14).
The data resulting from using this type of introspection on our personal lives and experiences can be in the form of a poem, a narrative or a story (Denzin, 1989; Connelly and Clandinin, 1999; Nekvapil, 2003). It is because of this that rhetorical structure is varied in autoethnography, from formal literary texts to more informal accounts or stories. Some authors feel that researchers need to be storytellers (Wolcott, 1994). For others autoethnography should be able to capture readers' minds and hearts (Ellis, 2000). It seems that there are no formal regulations regarding the writing of an autoethnographic account since it is the meaning that is important, not the production of a highly academic text.
In an attempt to draw researchers' attention to the different practice of what is named ‘evocative or emotional autoethnography', Anderson (2006) makes a distinction between analytic and evocative autoethnography. He proposed a more analytic form of autoethnography …in which the researcher is (1) a full member in the research group or setting, (2) visible as such a member in published texts, and (3) committed to developing theoretical understandings of broader social phenomena (p. 373).
Thus, analytic autoethnography is directed towards objective writing and analysis of a particular group, whereas evocative autoethnography aims toward researchers' introspection on a particular topic to allow readers to make a connection with the researchers' feelings and experiences. In a different vein, Foley (2002) advocates more reflexive epistemological and narrative practices, as he considers that they would make autoethnographies a more engaging and common genre which could contribute to bridging the gap between researchers and ordinary people. As Bochner and Ellis (1996) suggest, "On the whole, autoethnographers don't want you to sit back as spectators; they want readers to feel and care and desire" (p. 24). It seems that evocative or emotional autoethnography is gaining ground in researchers' practice because of the connection it allows readers to their own lives. However, in addition to its advantages as a research method, there are also limitations and criticisms which need to be explored.
Advantages and limitations ofautoethnography
One of the main advantages of personal narratives is that they give us access into learners' private worlds and provide rich data (Pavlenko, 2002, 2007). Another advantage is the ease of access to data since the researcher calls on his or her own experiences as the source from which to investigate a particular phenomenon. It is this advantage that also entails a limitation as, by subscribing analysis to a personal narrative, the research is also limited in its conclusions. However, Bochner and Ellis (1996) consider that this limitation on the self is not valid, since, "If culture circulates through all of us, how can autoethnography be free of connection to a world beyond the self?" (p. 24).
An important advantage, I believe, is the potential of autoethnography to contribute to others' lives by making them reflect on and empathise with the narratives presented. Through reading a cultural or social account of an experience, some may become aware of realities that have not been thought of before, which makes autoethnography a valuable form of inquiry. Personally, I consider that any piece of research should have a beneficial or practical goal for all the people involved in it. The purposes of autoethnography may be as varied as the topics it deals with. However, writing accounts of research should always have the goal of informing and educating others, which is an objective that autoethnographies might accomplish through making connections with personal experiences of readers. As emphasised by Plummer (2001), ‘What matters is the way in which the story enables the reader to enter the subjective world of the teller -to see the world from her or his point of view, even if this world does not ‘match reality'(p.401). Another advantage of writing autoethnographically is that it allows the researcher to write first person accounts which enable his or her voice to be heard, and thus provide him or her with a transition from being an outsider to an insider in the research (Hitchcock and Hughes, 1995).
Another advantage is acknowledged by Richards (2008), who sees autoethnography as emancipatory discourse since "…those being emancipated are representing themselves, instead of being colonized by others and subjected to their agendas or relegated to the role of second-class citizens" (p. 1724). Thus, autoethnography represents for many the right to tell their truth as experienced without waiting for others to express what they really want to be known and understood.
Despite the advantages of autoethnography as a method of research mentioned above, there are also some limitations which need to be borne in mind. For example, the feelings evoked in readers may be unpleasant since the connections readers make to narratives cannot be predicted (Bochner and Ellis, 1996). Another limitation is the exposure it implies of the researcher's inner feelings and thoughts, which require honesty and willingness to self-disclose. This limitation also entails many ethical questions which sometimes may be very difficult for the researcher to answer, making autoethnographies a complicated method to follow.
One of the main features of autoethnography is its emphasis on the self and it is this specific feature that entails the problematic ethical considerations of the method (Ellis, 2007). As a personal narrative is developed, the context and people interacting with the subject start to emerge in the reflexive practice (Ellis and Bochner, 2000). It is at this point when the problem of obtaining or not obtaining consent to be included in the narrative has to be considered (Miller and Bell, 2002). Evocative autoethnography includes the description of periods of researchers' lives that involve sensitive issues with regard to the researcher and the people around him or her (Wall, 2008). Due to this, special considerations have to be taken into account when referring to loved ones, such as family members, partners or close friends.
Evocative autoethnographies may be written in the first or third person. For some, using the third person gives a sense of distance from the events and the people being referred to. As explained in Ellis et al. (2007) in a statement by Denzin (1997), "I was just going to disguise myself because I still didn't have the freedom to – I hadn't given myself the freedom to – write that narrative in the first person" (p. 317). For others, the first person seems to be the only way to be completely explicit about the events being analysed. In a reflection on a narrative he wrote, Wyatt (2006) admits changing some parts of his narrative from first to third person because it gives him a certain distance. For autoethnographers, Wyatt says, the first ethical principle should be, "...how close we choose to position our readers"(p. 814). The second principle is the one of consent. In describing critical periods of our lives it may be very difficult to ask the people involved in these narratives to give consent to their publication. However, it seems that getting formal consent does not help researchers deal with the feelings of guilt and harm they may have when writing autoethnographic accounts (Ellis, 2007; Wall, 2008). Ellis (2007) adds a dimension to ethics in autoethnography: relational ethics, which refers to the ethics involved in writings about personal experiences where intimate others are included. Should we ask consent from the people involved in autoethnographic narratives? It seems that there are no straightforward responses to this or to other ethical questions that may arise when engaged in autoethnography. As Ellis (2007) puts it:
The bad news is that there are no definitive rules or universal principles that can tell you precisely what to do in every situation or relationship you may encounter, other than the vague and generic "do no harm" (p. 6).
This generic rule of no harm was not clear enough in its application for Wall (2008), who, in spite of having consent from her family to write about her experience as an adoptive mother, was not free from feelings of guilt, as she expresses:
I had a persistent and significant sense of anxiety about the tension between proceeding with an academic project and telling a story about my life that was inextricably intertwined with my son's (p. 49).
Along the same lines, Megford (2006) felt hurt when reading an autoethnographic account which erased her and made a part of her life that had some value for her disappear. She states:
...when writing autoethnographically, we are forced to hold a critical mirror to our lives, and sometimes looking in that mirror by candlelight is more flattering than looking into the mirror in broad daylight. (p. 859)
Although there are many issues to consider when engaging in autoethnography, I agree with Ellis (2007) who considers that the main criterion to bear in mind is that "…autoethnography itself is an ethical practice" (p. 26). Writing autoethnographically entails being ethical and honest about the events described as well as the content of words expressed by all the people involved in these events.
Criticisms of the method
As Sparkes (2000) has stated, "The emergence of autoethnography and narratives of self…has not been trouble-free, and their status as proper research remains problematic" (p. 22). The most recurrent criticism of autoethnography is of its strong emphasis on self, which is at the core of the resistance to accepting autoethnography as a valuable research method. Thus, autoethnographies have been criticised for being self-indulgent, narcissistic, introspective and individualised (Atkinson, 1997; Coffey, 1999).
Another criticism is of the reality personal narratives or autoethnographies represent, or, as Walford (2004) puts it, "If people wish to write fiction, they have every right to do so, but not every right to call it research" (p. 411). This criticism originates from a statement by Ellis and Bochner (2000), conceiving autoethnography as a narrative that, "…is always a story about the past and not the past itself" (p. 745) . An opposite view is that of Walford (2004), who asserts that "…the aim of research is surely to reduce the distortion as much as possible" (p. 411). Walford's concerns are focused on how much of the accounts presented as autoethnographies represent real conversations or events as they happened, and how much they are just inventions of the authors.
According to Ellis and Bochner (2000), recreating the past in a narrative way represents an "…existential struggle to move life forward" (p. 746). For them, the subjectivity of the researcher is assumed and accepted as the value of autoethnography. Bochner and Ellis (1996) consider that a useful aim of personal narratives "… is to allow another person's world of experience to inspire critical reflection on your own" (p. 22). Thus, the aim of autoethnography is to recreate the researcher's experience in a reflexive way, aiming at making a connection to the reader which can help him or her to think and reflect about his or her own experiences. This has led to the criticism of considering the main goal of autoethnography as therapeutic rather than analytic (Atkinson, 1997). Indeed, Walford (2004) sees no value in this type of autoethnography, since a social research report should aim at presenting organised, logical claims supported by empirical data. It is perhaps the closeness of the author to the phenomenon under investigation that causes such criticism. If researchers are supposed to be as distant as possible from the research in order to present as objective a truth as possible, how can this be accomplished by autoethnography? However, as Denzin and Lincoln (2000) state, "Objective reality can never be captured. We can know a thing only through its representations" (p. 5). Thus, the richness of autoethnography is in those realities that emerge from the interaction between the self and its own experiences that reflect the cultural and social context in which those events took place. It is through this representation that understanding of a particular phenomenon is accomplished.
Evaluation of autoethnography
The problem of evaluating qualitative research has been a perennial struggle for those engaged in these practices. Autoethnography has no specific rules or criteria to adhere to since it can be approached using diverse types of genre. Due to the particular characteristics of autoethnography, the reactions to a personal narrative cannot be foreseen and the interpretation may be varied (Bochner and Ellis, 1996). Thus, the subjective interpretations that may arise from personal narratives oppose the positivist view of research which aims at presenting an objective account of the truth. In addition, the personal and emotional involvement of the researcher in autoethnography contrasts with the distant and objective role of researchers' goals in a positivist stance. It is because of this that evaluating autoethnography is not a straightforward task and it seems that a general consensus has not been reached. As Richardson (2000b) suggests, "Although we are all roughly categorized as ‘poststructural ethnographers', we have different takes on the ethnographic project" (p. 252).
However, we can find some guidelines for an evaluation of an autoethnographic account. For Megford (2006), the only criteria should be "...the criteria by which we evaluate ourselves as we write" (p. 861). Since there are no criteria to evaluate autoethnography, and what is presented as truth can encompass some omissions or changes, Megford (2006) proposes that the primary ethical standard against which any autoethnography should be evaluated is ‘an ethic of accountability' in which the writer should write his or her truth as if all the people involved in those events were listening to him or her. In doing this, Megford (2006) suggests writers should be aware that:
Our subjects might disagree with our representation of shared experiences or they might question our decision to write about an experience in the first place, but we should be willing to confront these issues, even when avoiding them by quietly publishing our work in academic journals/texts is a viable alternative (p. 862).
Richardson (2000a, p. 254) suggests that autoethnography should be evaluated as science and as art, and proposes five criteria against which to evaluate any autoethnography: substantive contribution, aesthetic merit, reflexivity, the impact the narrative causes the reader, and how much the narrative expresses a reality. It is important to note that Richardson's criteria refer to all types of ethnography including autoethnography, so it may be that some of the criteria proposed are not applicable to all types of autoethnography, which takes diverse forms and genres. For Ellis (2000), a good autoethnographic narrative should be able to engage your feeling and thinking capacities at the same time as generating in the reader questions regarding the experience, the position of the author, how the reader may have experienced the event described, or what the reader may have learned.
For me, autoethnography is educational research since, as expressed by Bochner and Ellis (2006), it "… show(s) people in the process of figuring out what to do, how to live and what their struggles mean" (p. 111). In doing so, people are not only building meaning in their lives, but through these evocative narratives others may be able to reflect on similar experiences and then be able to do something beneficial for themselves and for others (Ellis, 2004).
The purpose of qualitative research is to examine any social phenomenon by enabling the researcher to go into the participants' naturalistic setting and try to get a comprehensive understanding of it (Bryman, 2008). Autoethnography, as with all research methods, has advantages and disadvantages. Although autoethnography as a research method can be an unknown and difficult tool for novice researches to use, it is an instrument through which researchers can explore and portray the culture where a phenomenon is being experienced. This cultural knowledge can help in the understanding of the interpretation derived from participants' accounts and the ‘reality' presented in studies where this approach is used. Although presenting the ‘real' truth is something that I consider we cannot fully accomplish, because we are all actors in the society in which we live and interact, I do believe that qualitative methods can help us to better understand a phenomenon in a given community or setting, since research findings are inevitably influenced by the socio-cultural background of participants (Flick, 2002).
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Journal of Research Practice
Volume 6, Issue 1, Article E1, 2010
Living Autoethnography: Connecting Life and Research
Faith Wambura Ngunjiri
Campolo College of Graduate and Professional Studies, Eastern University, St. Davids, PA, USA
Kathy-Ann C. Hernandez
Loeb School of Education, Eastern University, PA, USA
Loeb School of Education, Eastern University, PA, USA
Combining ethnography, biography, and self-analysis, autoethnography is a qualitative research method that utilizes data about self and context to gain an understanding of the connectivity between self and others within the same context. This introductory article exposes the reader to our own praxis of collaborative autoethnography to interrogate how we navigate the US academy as immigrant women faculty. Before introducing the articles in this special issue, we explore the autoethnography continuum, provide sample areas covered by autoethnographers, and explicate the practice of collaborative autoethnography. We conclude this piece with implications for future use of autoethnography as research method.
Keywords: collaborative autoethnography; autoethnography continuum
Suggested Citation: Ngunjiri, F. W., Hernandez, K. C., & Chang, H. (2010). Living autoethnography: Connecting life and research [Editorial]. Journal of Research Practice, 6(1), Article E1. Retrieved [date of access], from http://jrp.icaap.org/index.php/jrp/article/view/241/186
Research is an extension of researchers’ lives. Although most social scientists have been trained to guard against subjectivity (self-driven perspectives) and to separate self from research activities, it is an impossible task. Scholarship is inextricably connected to self--personal interest, experience, and familiarity. Working together on this special issue provided an opportunity for us to candidly reflect on and dialogue about the motivations behind our scholarship. Not surprisingly, at the very onset our dissertation studies were anchored in our personal interests. Ngunjiri (2007, 2010) as a Kenyan woman studied African women leaders; Hernandez (2005, 2006 ), a Trinidadian who lived and taught in the British Virgin Islands (BVI) prior to coming to the US, studied high school students in the BVI and the US; Chang (1992), a secondary educator, explored the culture of adolescents in a US high school. In spite of this intimate connection with our work, we followed traditional scientific paradigms in conducting and reporting our work. For each of us, there was little room for self-analysis as researcher and participant in the research process. That story remained untold--it had to wait for another day. The emerging recognition of autoethnography as research method signals that day has come.
Now, as immigrant women of color in the US academy, we unapologetically claim that we are doing autoethnography. The intersection of our socio-identities and the opportunities and challenges we face in the academy has become our positionality; collaborative autoethnography is our method of choice. In this article, we discuss the methodological tenets of autoethnography and the collaborative autoethnography that has drawn us together for the last couple of years. The methodological discussion is followed by an introduction to the articles in this special issue. We are pleased to present 10 highly selective articles discussing autoethnography as research practice. We hope this collection continues to promote dialogue and critical thinking about the scope and future direction of autoethnography as research method.
2. Autoethnography as Qualitative, Self-Focused, and Context-Conscious Method
Autoethnography is a qualitative research method that utilizes data about self and its context to gain an understanding of the connectivity between self and others within the same context. This research method is distinctive from others in three ways: it is qualitative, self-focused, and context-conscious. First, autoethnography is a qualitative research method (Chang, 2007; Denzin, 2006; Ellis, 2004; Ellis & Bochner, 2000). As a research method, autoethnography takes a systematic approach to data collection, analysis, and interpretation about self and social phenomena involving self. This systematic and intentional approach to the socio-cultural understanding of self sets autoethnography apart from other self-narrative writings such as memoir and autobiography. Second, autoethnography is self-focused. The researcher is at the center of the investigation as a “subject” (the researcher who performs the investigation) and an “object” (a/the participant who is investigated). Autoethnographic data provide the researcher a window through which the external world is understood. Although the blurred distinction between the researcher-participant relationship has become the source of criticism challenging the scientific credibility of the methodology (Anderson, 2006; Holt, 2003; Salzman, 2002; Sparkes, 2002), access to sensitive issues and inner-most thoughts makes this research method a powerful and unique tool for individual and social understanding (Ellis, 2009). Third, autoethnography is context-conscious. Rooted in ethnography (the study of culture), autoethnography intends to connect self with others, self with the social, and self with the context (Reed-Danahay, 1997; Wolcott, 2004). The focus on self does not necessary mean “self in a vacuum.” A variety of others--“others of similarity” (those with similar values and experiences to self), “others of difference” (those with different values and experiences from self), and “others of opposition” (those with values and experiences seemingly irreconcilable to self)--are often present in stories about self (Chang, 2008). This multiplicity of others exist in the context where a self inhabits; therefore, collecting data about self ultimately converges with the exploration of how the context surrounding self has influenced and shaped the make-up of self and how the self has responded to, reacted to, or resisted forces innate to the context. Ethnographic attention to the socio-cultural context is the foundation of this research method.
Autoethnographers pay varying levels of attention to narration/description and analysis/interpretation of autobiographical data. According to Ellis and Bochner, “autoethnographers vary in their emphasis on the research process (graphy), on culture (ethno), and on self (auto)” such that “different exemplars of autoethnography fall at different places along the continuum of each of these three axes” (Ellis & Bochner, 2000, p.740). The continuum could be presented as in Figure 1. Wherever one is on the continuum, it represents a mix of artistic representation, scientific inquiry, self-narration, and ethnography. However, we could argue that some forms of autoethnography, particularly in the way they are written and conveyed, lean more toward art whereas others make more purposeful attempts at scientific analysis. Some scholars categorize these differences as evocative versus analytical (see Anderson, 2006, including other articles in that special issue in response to his view on analytic autoethnography). The point at which one lies on that continuum could also be in flux, changing according to the particular writing project and the goals of the researcher.
Figure 1. Autoethnography continuum, adapted from Ellis and Bochner (2000).
Some of the discussions about the autoethnographic landscape tend to be polarizing, insisting on support for one extreme of the continuum or the other , and sometimes even dismissing alternative viewpoints (again see Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, Volume 35, Number 4, 2006, for critiques of Anderson’s analytic autoethnography, some supportive with qualifications, others dismissive and critical). In this regard, Denzin in the mentioned special issue wrote:
Ellis, Bochner, Richardson, St. Pierre, Holman Jones, and their cohort want to change the world by writing from their hearts . . . the writers in the Third Chicago School [the one that Anderson supports] want none of this . . . ethnography is a [sic] not an innocent practice. Our research practices are performative, pedagogical and political. Through our writing and our talk, we enact the worlds we study . . . the pedagogical is always moral and political; by enacting a way of seeing and being, it challenges, contests, or endorses the official, hegemonic ways of seeing and representing the other. (2006, p. 423)
Ellis and Bochner (2006) try to be more conciliatory, though they worry that analytic autoethnography per Anderson is simply a genre of realist ethnography as opposed to an alternative ethnographic practice. Vryan (2006) is more supportive of analytic autoethnography, but argues against the limits that Anderson placed on it by insisting that autoethnography must include data from others. Vryan argues that this should not be a precondition for naming one’s practice analytic autoethnography. Instead,
What Anderson discusses as AA is one way to employ self-study; specifically, it is a way to conduct traditional ethnography with significantly enhanced researcher visibility and reflexivity and a strong member role. I have no problem with the research strategy he suggests--I find great value in traditional ethnography and the version of it he proposes--but I believe we can more usefully establish what AA is and can be. There are many ways analysis via self-study may be accomplished, and the term analytic autoethnography should be applicable to all such possibilities. (2006, p. 406)
Further, he recommends that “the necessity, value and feasibility of such data will vary according to the specifics of a given project and the goals of its creator” (p. 407). Continued dialogue provokes us to interrogate the assumptions and processes that define this research method. Ironically though, in defending our own understanding of autoethnography, the dialogue is richest when method takes precedence over personality--when autoethnography continues to serve the purposes of diverse authors, telling different tales in different ways.
3. A Variety of Autoethnographic Tales
Autoethnographers explore a wide range of experiences, some purely personal and others in relation with/to other participants of research projects. Professors have explored their experiences within the academy as instructors in addition to how they navigate the classroom as minority faculty (Rodriguez, 2009), the development of the faculty identity in a Spanish university (Hernandez, Sancho, Creus, & Montané, 2010, in this special issue), unique experiences of academic culture (Pelias, 2003; Walford, 2004), experiences with teaching qualitative research or other subject matter (Borochowitz, 2005), and spirituality in higher education (Chang & Boyd, forthcoming, Cozart, 2010). Emotional experiences are particularly popular topics within which faculty explore their “lived experience” of specific phenomena including depression (Jago, 2002). Autoethnographers have also explored their experiences with grief (Lee, 2006), dealing with loss and illness (Ellis, 1995; Lee, 2010) and other areas related to health. Jago (2002) deals with depression in the context of the academy, even though some of the sources of her depression had to do with personal relationships outside of work. She is concerned with telling the story of how depression impacted her experience at work, including how she cancelled classes and eventually took a medical leave. Upon her return to work, she writes about how others seemed to view her or how she thought they viewed her because of having suffered with/from depression. It is a story of vulnerability in the academy relating to the tenure and promotion processes as well as to relationships with students and colleagues.
Various autoethnographers have explored their own identity and its development within given socio-cultural contexts, some of them being directly related to the academy as professors, others in relation to conducting research in the field. Stories of coming out in the academy (Ettorre, 2010) and how sexuality, particularly homosexuality, is experienced within the higher education environment abound (see also Mitra  and Mizzi  in this special issue). Gender identity is also explored by various autoethnographers, sometimes in relation to other aspects of their social identity, other times in isolation. For instance, masculinity (Drummond, 2010) in relation to sports, femininity (Averett, 2009), and Black masculinity (Alexander, 2004) serve as examples of explorations of identity using autoethnography.
White privilege has also been a topic of personal autoethnographic exploration at the individual level of analysis (Boyd, 2008; Warren, 2001) as well as within a dialogic framework (Toyosaki, Pensoneau-Conway, Wendt, & Leathers, 2009). Others have looked at their racial and/or multiracial identity (Gatson, 2003; Alexander, 2004), including the impact this has on research (Pompper, 2010, in this special issue) and on life in the academy (Pathak, 2010, in this special issue).
Other autoethnographers look at family drama and relationships, including father-absence and family secrets (Jago, 2006; Poulos, 2009). Jago’s autoethnography is both about her own experiences as well as those of her participants with absent fathers. Dealing with such stories where one is both researcher and research subject along with other participants may help the researcher to gain empathy with the respondents. Class consciousness is also a topic of autoethnographic exploration (McIlveen, Beccaria, Preez, & Patton, 2010).
These are a fraction of published autoethnographers as books, chapters, articles, and dissertations. For more examples of full length autoethnographies, see Chang’s (2008) book and explore the Qualitative Inquiry journal which publishes autoethnography articles.
4. Collaborative Autoethnography
Most autoethnographies published so far have been the works of solo authors. However, more autoethnographies co-conducted by two or more researchers have been appearing in publications. For example, Norris, who invented “duoethnography,” engaged another researcher to co-construct their common and differing experiences as a gay and a straight male in a dialogic format (Sawyer & Norris, 2004). Toyosaki et al. (2009) explore their White privilege in the sequential process also resulting in a co-constructed dialogue. Unlike the duoethnography, their research process, self-labeled as “community autoethnography,” involved four individuals. Two of the articles published in this special issue are collaborative autoethnographies (discussed later). Their studies involved more than two researchers and the final products do not take on the dialogical format. Irrespective of the number of researchers who participated in the co-construction process, their interactions produced a richer perspective than that emanating from a solo researcher autoethnography. One researcher’s story stirred another researcher’s memory; one’s probing question unsettled another’s assumptions; one’s action demanded another’s reaction. All collaborative autoethnographers as participant-researchers not only made decisions about their research process but also kept themselves accountable to each other.
Collaborative autoethnographers adopt various models of collaboration. Some collaborate fully at all stages of research process. Others collaborate at certain stages and work individually in other stages of research. Whether collaboration is done fully or partially, cooperative data collection is a key to collaborative autoethnography. In this stage, some research teams may adopt a sequential model, in which one autoethnographer writes about his/her experience, passes his/her writing to the next person who adds his/her story to the previous writing, and passes it along to the next person for further addition of stories. Toyosaki et al. (2009) followed this model. Others use a concurrent model in which autoethnographers select topics for data collection, independently collect autobiographic data, and gather to share and review their stories and probe each other to extract further data. Geist-Martin et al. (2010) in this issue followed the concurrent format although they did not initially intend to do collaborative autoethnography beyond sharing stories and looking for common themes as a conference presentation. Methodological discussion of collaborative autoethnography is further advanced in our forthcoming book on this method. In this article, we will introduce a collaborative autoethnography we have engaged in for the last 2 years.
In our own work, we have adopted a full concurrent collaboration model in which we collaborated at all stages of research--data collection, analysis, and writing. This model of full and concurrent collaboration could be logistically challenging because the research team needs to converge frequently to make collective decisions along the research process. Taking advantage of the physical proximity as colleagues at the same university, we set out to explore our common experiences as immigrant women of color in US higher education. We further characterize our collaborative autoethnography as dialogical and ethnographic. The collaboration process was dialogical because our independent self-exploration and collective interaction were interlaced in the process. Figure 2 provides a visual representation of this model.
Figure 2. Collaborative autoethnography--a concurrent collaboration model.
We began our collaboration by collectively deciding on the general direction of the research and topics to explore for the beginning stage of data collection. This initial converging step was followed by the diverging step of individually writing out our experiences. Whereas the “convergent” step enabled us to shape the path of our research together, the “divergent” step created the space for us to reflect and collect our autobiographic data free of one another’s influences. Then, we shared our writings with each other, reviewed them, and posed probing questions to each other. At this convergent step, we exposed ourselves to each other for further exploration and collectively conducted preliminary data analysis on the basis on which further steps of data collection were decided. Our convergent sessions were audio-taped, which was added to our pool of data. We iterated between individual (divergent) and collaborative (convergent) activities at several times in the process. The collaboration process was grounded on the ethnographic intent of understanding the interplay among the forces of our developmental, personal, and socio-cultural identities.
Ethnographic methods of data collection, analysis, and interpretation were employed as well. The data were analyzed in a three phase process: preliminary exploratory analysis, open coding, and development of themes. For us, collaborative autoethnography has been a transformative process whereby we were able to create community, advance scholarship, and become empowered to effect change at our institution.
5. Challenges and Opportunities of Autoethnography as Method
Autoethnographers recognize several challenges and concerns in using autoethnography as their chosen research method. One of the primary concerns discussed in the literature has to do with ethics. Specifically, researchers have discussed the challenge of telling their stories in light of representing others in that story--such as stories of pain, hurt, betrayal, family drama, and loss that may include other actors such as parents, siblings, and colleagues. Ellis’ (2007) article on relational ethics assists autoethnographers in grappling with that kinds of concerns. Medford (2006) also deals with issues of ethics and accountability in autoethnographic work.
Another concern has to do with writing about oneself while dealing with sensitive issues that may cause self-disclosure/exposure. Vulnerability is part of what makes reading autoethnographic works so compelling, as researchers expose their pains, hurt, loss, grief, heartbreaks, and other emotions experienced as they travail through events in their lives. In this respect, Chatham-Carpenter (2010, in this special issue) explores the ethical dilemma involved in using her own life experiences with an eating disorder. She shares the lessons she learned on how to protect oneself even as she urges autoethnographers to write through their pain. Similarly, Pearce (2010, in this special issue) discussed the “crises and freedoms” involved in using one’s own life as the source of data for research. She warns of the emotional vulnerability that an autoethnographer may experience when researching her own life.
Despite the concerns, researchers have found that autoethnography provides them with opportunities to study subject areas that would not be as easily and profoundly expressed with other methods, including those discussed here (loss, pain, grief, depression, eating disorders, family drama, etc.). Whereas such topics can be studied using ethnographic, phenomenological, and other qualitative approaches, autoethnography allows researchers to dig deeply into their own experience, including the attendant emotions in ways that may not be possible if they were being interviewed by someone else. Similarly, sharing one’s own story of loss, pain, and the like with research participants may create more empathy, which engenders more openness. Chang (2008) resonates with this sentiment when she discussed that this method is friendly to researchers and readers. The method not only enables researchers to access personally intimate data with ease but also to reach readers with their vulnerable openness. This open relationship grounded on emotional and cognitive resonance has potential to increase the understanding of interconnectivity between self and others across socio-cultural differences and “motivate them to work toward cross-cultural coalition building” (p. 52). The broader implication of the method needs to be continuously examined. We believe that our contributing authors add their insights to this endeavor.
6. Introduction to the Special Issue Articles
The authors in this special issue cover many of the areas that we have discussed in the preceding pages. Here we introduce each article. We begin these introductions by looking at issues of ethics in autoethnographic research. The authors writing about ethics look at protecting themselves as the subject of their own research, even as they protect other participants involved or implied in their stories.
The special issue starts with an article by April Chatham-Carpenter, Associate Professor of Communication at University of Northern Iowa, USA. Chatham-Carpenter (2010) is concerned with protecting the researcher as the object of her own study, as an extension of the discussions regarding protecting participants in research with others. She argues that, especially when writing about topics that are painful and potentially exposing, the researcher should write through the pain, yet be careful to protect herself as well as those implicated in her story, reminiscent of the arguments made by Chang (2008), Ellis (2007), and Tillmann-Healy (1996). The difference between Chatham-Carpenter’s and Tillmann-Healy’s arguments and those from Chang and Ellis is the focus on “do thyself no harm” (Chatham-Carpenter, 2010).
Following Chatham-Carpenter is an article by Carolyn Pearce, an independent scholar from the United Kingdom who writes about the sense of heightened vulnerability that awakened in her while doing research with girls who had experienced the loss of their mother. She discusses how this exposed her to renewed grief at the loss of her own mother, even though it had happened almost 2 decades prior to the research study. She details how she used her vulnerability and grief as part of the research material, recognizing that she could not completely separate her experience from those of the young women she was studying. Pearce (2010) then explains the lessons she learned through that research process on “the crises and freedoms of researching your own life.” While some may argue that her study of the girls is not autoethnographic in a strict sense, her approach to research has potential to grow into a form of collaborative autoethnography such as that which Smith (2005) conducted as she investigated healing experiences of brain injury patients that included herself.
We move away from ethical concerns to an article by Robert Mizzi, a doctoral candidate at York University, Canada, who introduces us to multivocality in autoethnographic work. Mizzi (2010) defines multivocality as “providing representational space in the autoethnography for the plural and sometimes contradictory narrative voices located within the researcher.” Using vignettes from his experiences as a teacher in Kosovo, he demonstrates how multivocality helps to expose the variety of voices as these voices respond to an event--including where the voices demonstrate tensions within the actor as he thinks through and responds to what is happening to him. Mizzi recommends multivocality as a tool towards decolonizing and enriching autoethnographic practice. His article also delves into issues of identity and the vulnerability that being “the other” can have, in this case, the otherness of the researcher himself living within a foreign culture and in a work situation where being “out” as a gay man might be disadvantageous to his continuing contract.
Rahul Mitra, a doctoral student at Purdue University, USA, follows with his article interrogating how autoethnography can be used to expand knowledge as a form of scholarship. Mitra’s (2010) incisive article argues against what he regards as the false dichotomy between the doing of research and being a researcher, observing instead that the two are dialectically connected: “doing is located within the ethnographer’s very being.” Mitra provides an example from his own research process. His piece also involves issues of identity, specifically gay and immigrant identity within the US academy, demonstrating how these positionalities offered him a starting point and standpoint for his research topics and interests.
Expanding on the issues of identity in autoethnographic research practice is Elena Maydell, a doctoral candidate at the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Maydell (2010) explicates her experiences as a researcher amongst Russian immigrants to New Zealand, and realizes that her insider perspective as a member of the same immigrant group is the most important tool in her repertoire as she interpreted and represented their stories. Being an immigrant from Russia herself meant that as she interviewed participants and interpreted their stories of identity formation, she was questioning and analyzing herself too; thus, autoethnography became an important process, one she described as being “an invisible but inseparable part of my research undertakings, both theoretical and empirical.” Maydell realized the usefulness of finding an appropriate theoretical and methodological framework to use in interrogating and understanding the construction of self-identity for herself and the participants.
Donnalyn Pompper, Professor of Communication Studies at Temple University in Philadelphia, USA, interrogates how her identity as a White woman academic impacted participants in her research studies--participants who were African-American, Asian, and Latina. Using autoethnographic reflection, Pompper (2010) revisited her earlier research study to explore the researcher-researched relationship as far as racial-matching is concerned. Using a non-representative sample, Pompper sought to find out how some of those participants felt about her. She found out that the participants did not have problems with her race and appeared to appreciate having the opportunity to air their opinions about the field of Public Relations. Whereas Pompper does not raise this, it is also possible they felt a connection to her by virtue of gender and common interest in Public Relations. The article demonstrates the need to be cognizant of one’s social identity in researching those constructed as “other,” especially in view of the earlier issues of “crisis of representation” (Lengel, 1998; Lincoln & Guba, 2000).
In one of two articles focusing on motherhood, Patty Sotirin , Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Michigan Technological University, USA, explicates the similarities between evocative autoethnographic mother-writing and “momoirs,” that is, popular memoirs about motherhood. Sotirin (2010) argues that, whereas there are some similarities between the two genres, evocative autoethnographic writers should employ what she terms “radical specificity” to think creatively about personal experiences and cultural relations beyond what can be communicated as shared experience.
Next is an article by Fernando Hernandez, Juana Maria Sancho, Amalia Creus, and Alejandra Montané (2010), education faculty at the University of Barcelona, Spain, who provide the first of two articles in this special issue that employ collaborative autoethnographic methods. Hernandez and colleagues’ article focused on how university faculty constructed their professional identities. The article recounts the individual writing process, as well as the dialogical data analysis used in their original study. Issues such as relationships with colleagues, their early experiences as students, the beginning of their professional careers as faculty, and the effect of gender on all these experiences are discussed as contributing to their professional identity. Hernandez and colleagues then engage in discussions on the process and the lessons learned in the collaborative autoethnographic research process: three lessons that are well worth the read.
The article by Patricia Geist-Martin and colleagues, communication studies scholars from various institutions in the US, focus on motherhood stories; either their experiences as mothers, as children, or a juxtaposition of both. Professor Geist-Martin (San Deigo State University), Lisa Gates (Associate Professor, San Diego Christian University), Liesbeth Weiring (Instructor, Cuyamaca College), Professor Erika Kirby (Creighton University), Renee Houston (Associate Professor, University of Puget Sound), Ann Lilly and Juan Moreno both students at San Diego State University, offered an excellent example of collaborative autoethnographic practice. Their collaborative autoethnography started with individual narratives about mothering and/or being mothered, which they presented at a conference. During that presentation, they began, and continued afterwards, to look for common themes and later to interrogate their participation in hegemonic constructions of motherhood using feminist critic. The article demonstrates the benefits of collaborative autoethnographic method in helping researchers to explore the depth of individual and shared experiences, such that sharing the stories unearthed insights into mothering that no one story in isolation could have done.
To conclude this special issue, Archana Pathak (2010), an instructor in the Women Studies department at Virginia Commonwealth University, USA, examines how autoethnography combined with postcolonial theory can aid researchers in disrupting the colonial enterprise. Pathak’s essay provokes the reader to use autoethnography to further a social justice agenda in the academy. It provides an excellent parting shot as she uses her own experience in the academy in relation to race--her own and that of her students and colleagues--and how her race was sometimes used to judge her abilities and whom she could advise. Pathak also discusses how discovering autoethnography helped her to finally tell the stories that she had been longing to read/hear, stories that reflected her own experience, even as she struggled with whether telling such stories could really be “research” and not merely “me-search.”
7. Implications for Future Research Practice
As self-focused writings gain more recognition as scholarly endeavor, we can only imagine that production of autoethnography will increase because the easy access to the source of data will encourage scholars under pressure of “publish or perish” to use their own lives as source of data for research. As scholars continue to engage in scholarship that blurs art and science, we imagine that autoethnographers as social scientists will face more pressure to defend our efforts converging these traditionally dichotomous elements--art and science. Autoethnographers may respond to the pressure in three different ways.
First, autoethnographers may continue to ride on the back of postmodern defiance against the conventional dichotomization between science and art. Whether they position themselves closer to the “ethnography” pole or to the “autobiography” pole in the auto-ethno-graphy continuum presented in Figure 1, they will continue to mix scientific inquiry and self-exploration and to express the mixture in descriptive-realistic, analytical-interpretive, confessional-emotive, or imaginative-creative writing. The descriptive-realistic and analytical-interpretive writing is more supported by the traditional scientific approach whereas the confessional-emotive and imaginative-creative writing is closer to artistic presentation. In the spirit of transcending the dichotomization, it is possible for autoethnographers to mix different styles of writing and presentations of inquiry in the final products of their autoethnographic writings.
Second, autoethnographers may swing back to a more conventional scientific inquiry in reaction to the ever-increasing production of self-introspection that lacks methodological transparency. Although the voice of defense for self-exploration as part of scientific inquiry has become stronger, the community of scientific inquiry is not likely to disappear in the face of growing interest in autoethnography. Their love affair with systematic methodology may demand more methodological transparency than what most autoethnographies have offered in confessional-evocative or imaginative-creative writings. Although Chang (2008), Anderson (2006) and others on the analytical end of the continuum stand in contrast to Ellis (2004), Denzin (2006) and those on the more evocative end in terms of the defense of the systematic methodology of autoethnography, their efforts to explain the research process of autoethnography have been instructive for novice autoethnographers in pursuit of this new methodological adventure. In addition, such apologia has helped to defend autoethnography as a legitimate research method. It is unlikely that autoethnographers will fully succumb to the pressure to turn their writing into dry academic discourse. However, it is possible that more and more autoethnographers would present their methodological discussion as part of their autoethnographic product especially in theses and dissertations.
Third, autoethnographers may construct autoethnography collectively as we discussed earlier in the section on collaborative autoethnography. Collaborative interrogation could enable researchers to explore self in the presence of others to gain a collective understanding of their shared experiences. Critical probing of one another, a vital step in the collaborative process, can potentially keep them from settling too soon in their own grove of perspectives and evoke new insights beyond their own. With different models of collaboration--full or partial, sequential or concurrent--more autoethnographers may enter into self-exploration with others.
How autoethnography will develop within the next decade depends on how we will respond to the changing trend of scholarship and the fate of postmodernism. With the opportunities and challenges that this unique and powerful methodological tool presents to social scientists, researchers are called to examine this methodology with critical eyes so that it enhances the understanding of humanity--self in social-cultural context. Contributors to this special issue are doing precisely that and we as editors and fellow autoethnographers are grateful for their efforts.
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Received 28 February 2010 | Accepted 29 July 2010 | Published 23 August 2010
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