Autoethnography - perspectives for and against

main content

Autoethnography - Perspectives For and Against

Autoethnographies (see Bochner, 2000 and Ellis and Bochner, 2000) are accounts in which writers/researchers tell stories about their own lived experiences, relating these to broader contexts and understandings in much the same way as life historians analyse life stories in the light of historical, sociological or/and psychological theories and perspectives. In some cases autoethnographies focus on aspects of the research process, for instance, reflecting on the writing process or on the researcher’s experiences in the field. In most cases, autoethnographers will employ literary devices in order to evoke identification and emotion.

An example of this is the attached paper:

Sikes, P. & Clark, J. (2004) `Nobody told me there were schools quite like this´: Issues of Power, Discourse and Resistance in Writing About a School for Emotionally and Behaviourally Disturbed (EBD) Children, in J. Satterthwaite, Atkinson, E. & Martin, W. (Eds) The Disciplining of Education: New Languages of Power and Resistance Trentham: Stoke on Trent. pp. 89–102.

Autoethnography can be: ‘a way of looking at the world from a specific, perspectival, and limited vantage point (that) can tell, teach, and put people in motion. It is (…) radical democratic politics – a politics committed to creating space for dialogue and debate that instigates and shapes social change' (Jones, 2005).

Different authors see autoethnography differently:

  • 'I start with my personal life. I pay attention to my physical feelings, thoughts and emotions. I use what I call systematic sociological introspection and emotional recall to try and understand an experience I’ve lived through. Then I write my experience as a story. By exploring a particular life, I hope to understand a way of life … The self-questioning that autoethnography demands is extremely difficult. So is confronting things about yourself that are less than flattering. Believe me, honest autoethnographic exploration generates a lot of fears and doubts – and emotional pain. Just when you can’t stand the pain anymore, well that’s when the real work has only begun. Then there’s the vulnerability of revealing yourself, not being able to take back what you have written or having any control over how readers interpret it' (Ellis & Bochner, 2000, p. 737-738).
  • ‘"What is autoethnography?" you might ask. My brief answer: research, writing, story, and method that connect the autobiographical and personal to the cultural, social and political. Autoethnographic forms feature concrete action, emotion, embodiment, self-consciousness, and introspection portrayed in dialogue, scenes, characterization and plot. Thus autoethnography claims the conventions of literary writing’ (Ellis, 2004).
  • 'Autoethnography should not be "vanity ethnography"' (Maynard, 1993 p.329).
  • 'Autoethnography should not be a vehicle for "privileging the white middle-class woman or man's need for self-display above all else"' (Apple, 1996 p.xiv).
  • 'In excavating our own subjectivity, the point is not to produce research as therapy or stories for their own sake, but a disciplined and reflexive understanding of the known and the knower' (Walker & Unterhalter, 2004).

C. Wright Mills (1970) exhorts the use of the sociological imagination in such a way that: 'the personal uneasiness of individuals is focused upon explicit troubles and the indifference of publics is transformed into involvement with public issues' (pp 11-12) and notes that 'much private uneasiness goes unformulated; much public malaise and many decisions of enormous structural relevance never become public issues ... it is the uneasiness itself that is the trouble; it is the indifference itself that is the issue' (pp 18-19).

As Elizabeth Adams St. Pierre (2002, p.54) comments, quoting Michel Foucault, what motivates us (as researchers) is to do the kind of work that unequivocally involves us and our lives is an obstinate curiosity that it 'not the curiosity that seeks to assimilate what is proper for one to know, but that which enables one to get free of oneself' (Foucault, 1984/5, p.8).

'A new ethics of writing is advocated, an ethics of narrative that demands that writers put their empirical materials into forms that readers can use in their own lives... In so doing, writers strip away the veneer of self-protection that comes with professional title and position. With nothing any longer to hide, writers are now free to excavate the personal in the name of the political... These texts must also work as cultural criticism, as tools for critique and political action. At this level they join the personal with the political. They work as venues for ground level criticism aimed at the repressive structures of everyday life' (Denzin 2003, pp 137-8).

One further view

Sara Delamont is a member of QUALITI, based from the Cardiff School of Social Sciences, University of Wales, and founder editor, with Paul Atkinson, of the journal Qualitative Researcher. Her position with regard to autoethnography is well broadcast, most recently at BERA 2007 at the Institute of Education, London, and in her 2007 paper 'Arguments against autoethnography', Qualitative Researcher 4, pp2-4:

  • Auto-ethnography cannot fight familiarity – it is hard to fight familiarity in our own society anyway even when we have data.
  • Auto-ethnography is almost impossible to write and publish ethically: when Patricia Clough published poems about a lover’s genitalia, did he agree to them, when Carol Rambo Rnai published ‘My mother is mentally retarded’ did her mother give ‘informed consent’? Other actors cannot be disguised or protected. Readers will always wish to read autoethnography as an authentic, and therefore ‘true’ account of the writer’s life, and therefore the other actors will be, whatever disclaimers, or statements about fictions are included, be identifiable and identified.
  • As Paul Atkinson argues research is suppose to be analytic not merely experiential. Autoethnography is all experience, and is noticeably lacking in analytic outcome.
  • Autoethnography focuses on people on the wrong side of Becker’s classic question (‘whose side are we on?’) Autoethnography focuses on the powerful and not the powerless to whom we should be directing our sociological gaze….
  • Autoethnography abrogates our duty to go out and collect data: we are not paid generous salaries to sit in our offices obsessing about ourselves. Sociology is an empirical discipline and we are supposed to study the social.
  • Finally and most importantly ‘we’ are not interesting enough to write about in journals, to teach about, to expect attention from others. We are not interesting enough to be the subject matter of sociology. The important questions are not about the personal anguish (and most autoethnography is about anguish). Sociologists are a privileged group. Qualitative sociologists are particularly lucky as our work lasts… Autoethnography is an abuse of that privilege – our duty is to go out and research the classic texts of 2050 or 2090 – not sit in our homes focusing on ourselves.

Task 1

Consider the arguments in favour of autoethnography above and Sara Delamont's six arguments against it. Write a counter argument for each of Sara Delamont's six arguments against.

Task 2

Write an autoethnographic account of an experience that you have had in the course of your educational career. Where possible, make connections to appropriate academic and research based literature. What could other people learn about education (rather than simply about you) from this?

Task 3

Read Bochner’s 2000 paper and make a set of critical notes on the following:

  • Do you feel that Bochner’s views can be applied to your own professional practice area?
  • Provide some illustrations of the way in which you feel that can be demonstrated to someone who is not familiar with your practice.
  • Bochner identifies what he call ‘areas of agreement’ and ‘areas of disagreement’: explain the ways in which you feel that poststructural forms of thought have informed his thinking. Do you feel that he has made a useful distinction here?
  • Bochner posits narrative as a poetic social science; write a brief critical appraisal of what he asserts paying close attention to what he refers to as ‘self-narratives’.