Here the reading I’ll be focusing in on is Ellis et. al’s Autoethnography: An Overview. I’ve felt a good vector has been run along in this class with the course of readings we’ve done, and more specifically with the ordering of these methodologies. It feels like every week the knowledge picked up from the previous weeks’ classes have given context into this field and allow for some modicum of an opinion on the standings of these methodologies relative to each other (of course with the understanding that one week’s worth of reading into them is practically negligible in the grand scheme of the field of research).
In any case, it has become something of a staple of my blogs in this class to allow for some part of my writing to be dedicated to where I believed the method would fit in at a glance when beginning the reading, and where it may fit in after the reading. We’ve dealt largely with qualitative methods, some of which I’ve felt more inclined towards than others, but it has given me this insight: I should not pass judgment on a method before giving its (introductory) research its fair dues, as well as carry out a conversation in class about it. That being said, autoethnography is one which I was very lukewarm on going into this week. It felt to me that this method in particular is one of the most singular research experiences that we have encountered thus far which, though it serves its own purpose, it did seem somewhat exclusive. This was only really because of the conflation of ethnography and autobiography, as the reading states. But let’s now see about the reading.
Ellis lays out the method as being “an approach to research and writing” (my own emphasis). I’ll return to this “and writing” point later but it speaks to an angle of autoethnography which I ended up feeling allowed for its personal nature. Beyond this, the definition continues with the method being describing and analyzing personal experience to better understand a different culture’s experience. Ellis concludes with it being “both process and product” – not unlike grounded theory, which is later mentioned. The specific term “grounded theory” is mentioned later, but the thread of this similarity continues for the paragraph as Ellis clarifies that autoethnography is a method which recognizes and integrates the “innumerable ways personal experience influences the research process,” as well as the subjective state of the researcher. And while this is true, there is still a demand for an analytic bend towards the research for, as Ellis quotes Mitch Allen in saying, “Otherwise [you’re] telling [your] story—and that’s nice—but people do that on Oprah.”
The writing team then breaks down autoethnography into its roots autobiography and ethnography. One of the interesting parts of this article was when Ellis likened the autobiographical process to a collection of “epiphanies.” I mention this mostly as an aside, because I rarely, if ever, read autobiographies, and though I suppose if I were probed for a definition of a style of the genre I may describe this, its being put this way assisted me in understanding autoethnographies. Ethnographies, Ellis then says, are research done to assist insiders as well as outsiders better understand a culture’s practices and experiences.
The next section focused on the “how” of autoethnography and is broken down into “showing and telling.” The showing aspect of autoethnography often involves dialogue to give insight into emotions and experiences. The telling, then, is when the researcher takes a step away from the narrative and informs the reader on particulars as well as to allow the reader some space for more “abstract” considerations of the research. One very interesting bit which Ellis included in this section was the consideration for second-person narrative in autoethnographies. As I mentioned in my annotation around this point, second-person is something I so rarely encounter that this method of research, for the sake of apparently including it sometimes, became immediately more appealing to me for the literature of it all. As a quick aside I will say that this is when things began to click more with this method. It had been described in the article previously which I did not specifically cover here, but certainly when discussing the uses of second-person to carry out the findings of a method of research it became obvious that autoethnography is a research-writing hybrid. It made the very personal emphasis of the research more understandable and easier to reconcile, and I dare say a bit more interesting as well.
The fourth section, headed as “potentials, issues, and criticisms,” begins with a lengthy breakdown of subcategories of autoethnography. Nine of them to be specific. Without quadrupling the length of my blog, I’ll suffice to quote Ellis on the advent of these multiple forms of the method as well as give a few thoughts on a few specific ones. Ellis says, “The forms of autoethnography differ in how much emphasis is placed on the study of others, the researcher’s self and interaction with others, traditional analysis, and the interview context, as well as on power relationships.” Now of my specific notes… Of Layered Accounts we see mention, as I alluded to earlier, of grounded theory. It is a sub-method which “emphasizes the procedural nature” of autoethnography. Sounds like grounded theory to me. It comprises a search for questions and comparisons rather than truth, as Ellis states. But its dissimilarity as I understand it from this section, is that its focus is broader than grounded theory; more communal, while then showing “emergent experiences” of said communities and cultures.
At this point in the reading, the writing group was discussing some of the cautionary tales associated with autoethnography, one of which is “relational ethics/concerns.” This is one of those points which, in a way seems somewhat obvious, but its “goes-without-saying” nature does create an atmosphere to be potentially overlooked. What I mean by this is that within this method, because it is based heavily on real-life accounts, there are necessarily implications. As Ellis describes, if you include someone in an account of something, and that event is negative, or that person’s participation negative in some way, that person is then held negatively in the minds of the readers. There is a responsibility then to protect the people involved in the research, but not to abstract the research in the process. If, as Ellis describes, you conceal or abstract people or even specific events for pseudonyms and “like-events,” you risk making relative your research.
Lastly for this section, I must comment on the usage of one of my favorite words: verisimilitude. Great word, but also a good point on the method: that the validity of the research is in its verisimilitude to the life experiences of the people reading about it. Since these are accounts as documented vis-à-vis the experience of the researcher, they need some likeness to other communities or groups of people. This put a lot of the method into place for me.
So now I feel between two points with how I feel about autoethnography. I can appreciate, as Ellis cautioned, that too often this method is dissented on by those in both the autobiographical and ethnographical fields as being a bit too unkempt for them, but I am still uncertain what research potential there is for the method. If anything, I do appreciate that writing, in one of the ways in which it best serves people, is employed here – that being to empower. There was an earlier section in the article about how writing gives a voice to those who have difficulties expressing themselves otherwise, and that there is often a personal evolution for the researchers in this method. But it also attempts to bridge the gap between art and science, which Ellis phrases as being “erroneous.” More subtly though, and perhaps most interestingly, it is not only the gap between art and science which this method seeks to bridge, but that of process and product (again not unlike grounded theory) which are merely “…’difference(s) to be lived with.'”