Autoethnography

The knowing self is always connected to the known.”

Grant & Zeeman

Autoethnography is a form of qualitative research in which an author uses self-reflection and writing to explore their own personal experiences which sometimes reseults in an autobiographical story that will eventually have a deeper meaning and understandings. Autoethnography can also be used across various disciplines within the humanities.

The video below will give you an example of a young girls Autoethnography, The Words.

I found these articles very eye opening. I’m someone who enjoys bringing my own experiences into my work in hopes to help someone who might be experiencing the same situation I went through.

Also, when writers conduct reserach for their work, they tend on reserach everything or anything besides their own self. I found that this is a wonderful method in writing to dig deeper within yourself to find who you are as a person, writer, etc.

Write about their refluxive biographical engagment with culture, since they are, by defintion, experts by experience.”

Grant & Zeeman

A Commentary on Autoethnography

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.'”

Autoethnography

This week we are discussing and taking a dive into autoethnography.  Essentially, this is the idea of using personal experience and anecdotes in a way to enhance our research.  It almost sounds like an oxymoron of sorts; how could one’s own personal experience be a part of research? I think after taking in the information from the article I can now see how it can be used.  FIrst, we get a kind of broad description of this method of research. It is described as describing and analyzing personal experience to understand cultural experience. From there, In the next section, it is brought up that this type of research would widley rely on epiphanies, which are the larger moments that are more likely to stick with a person after any event.  It made me reflect on some of my own experiences and where these epiphanies have happened for me. I thought that was a particularly good point, as epiphanies are what happens when something truly begins to make sense to someone. By using these examples in writing and research, we can see how the overall point of what it is we are talking about has affected us and in some cases acted as the inspiration to make the inquiry that we did, which I feel is very important.  It is kind of like not losing sight of what is important to you, in a sense. That personal experience that brought you here in the first place should be something that is always in the back of your head, as that is conceivably the driving force behind the decision to do the research in the first place.

The next part of this entire method is the ways in which the author can go about showing these things.  “Most often through the use of conversation, showing allows writers to make events engaging and emotionally rich. “Telling” is a writing strategy that works with “showing” in that it provides readers some distance from the events described so that they might think about the events in a more abstract way.”  This is how the authors described it and I found it to be the most helpful in terms of truly understanding what it was to “show” and how the “showing” shoud be done. The idea of removing one from the larger picture is a great way to visualize how something is affecting people on a much deeper kind of level.  It becomes very circumstantial in that there are variables surrounding each individual tale that can all aggregate to a reason behind why and how someone is feeling from a particular event or instance. I am a big proponent of using personal anecdotes in writing, I just never saw these personal stories as a tool that could be used in the type of academic research we are conditioning ourselves to do.  

This reading brought up many good questions for me, as follows: 

  1. Which other research methods do you think would work best with this method?  Is it universal in its application to all of them? 
  2. What kinds of studies could be shut off from the possibility of using this type of method, and why? 
  3. Does personal experience really matter in terms of academic research? 

I again want to take a moment to say I hope all of you are doing okay, and thank Dr. Nelson for doing his part in creating a plan for us to move forward with our semester.  Just like I’m sure is true for all of you as well, I am very much looking forward to resuming our studies and program as it was intended.

Autoethnography: Blurring the Lines

Blog 5: March 23, 2020

Reaction to:

  • “Autoethnography: An Overview” by Carolyn Ellis, Troy, E. Adams, & Arthur P. Bochner
  • Grant & Zeeman. “Whose story is it? An autoethnography concerning narrative identity” by Alec J. Grant and Laetitia Zeeman
  • “An Autoethnography on Learning about Autoethnography” by Sarah Wall

“But there were losers, and the local graveyard in my town tells part of this story (although, of course, no headstone is testament to this.) My mother was buried there in 1974 after she hanged herself.” (Grant & Zeeman)

In his autoethnographic short story, Alec J. Grant provides an account of his early childhood. It is a moving story that weaves narrative elements such as suspense and evocative imagery with social commentary, writing theory, and research method. Throughout the story, Grant hints to the dysfunctionality of his mother, who is mentally ill and an alcoholic and his absentee father. Even his teachers in his small, rural Scottish town were, sadly, not very helpful. He describes them as “monsters and to be avoided” with a “most of them” in parentheses. Grant was a lonely boy who was able to overcome his struggles to be “educated at a Ph.D. level” and had meaningful careers as a mental health nurse, a health and behavioral writer, lecturer, and teacher, practitioner, researcher, and patient.” He is now a lecturer at the University of Brighton, England, where he is interested in “narrative inquiry as it relates to mental health practices.” Grant has devoted his life to helping others struggling with mental illness.   

For Grant, writing is therapeutic. How can one ever get over the suicide of a mother? Grant writes to make sense of himself and his childhood trauma (Ellis et al.). He also writes to question the “cultural narrative of well-turned-out adolescents” where society wants to hear of “promotions, degrees, higher degrees, more sporting successes.” People, especially people in small towns, do not want to hear (or share) stories of battles with alcoholism, drugs, “broken marriages, broken people, broken lives.” Grant was courageous enough to share his story to help others “validate their pain” and “to better cope with their circumstances” (Ellis et al., 5). In turn, he was able to experience a catharsis, a release of bottled emotions.

What is an autoethnography? According to the “Autoethnography: An Overview,” Ellis defines ethnography as “an approach to research and writing that “seeks to describe and systematically analyze (graphy) personal experience (auto) to understand cultural experience.” It is a relatively new field that “treats research as a “political, socially-just and socially-conscious act” — perhaps like critical discourse analysis where researchers such as James Paul Gee analyzes the social and political implications of language.

Initially, I was unsure of the difference between an autobiography and an autoethnography. I am familiar with autobiographies but not autoethnographies. Based on Ellis’ explanation, it appears that autobiographies and autoethnographies have different functions. When writing an autobiography, the writer is interested in selecting important memories of one’s past (or epiphanies); these memories are significant to the writer but not necessarily to others. While ethnographers are interested in studying a culture’s shared values and beliefs for “the purpose of helping insiders (cultural members) and outsiders (cultural strangers) better understand the culture” (Ellis et al., 3). For ethnographers, there is a greater emphasis on the cultural, social, and political impact of the stories.

Autobiographies and autoethnographies share tenets such as reflexivity and voice. Also, the process of an autobiography and an autoethnography are similar in that writers both use personal narratives, interviews, and texts such as photographs, metaphors, and literary journeys to share their stories. However, autoethnography is a type of research method with philosophical and theoretical underpinnings. With the rise of postmodernism, researchers such as Alec Grant reject the “positivist perspective” where research is conducting formally and scientifically, and “the research does not insert his biases, prejudices, and experience” in the research (Grant and Zeeman, 147). In traditional science research, we rarely see personal pronouns such as “I” and “we.” Therefore, some members of the scientific community consider ethnography as “too artful and not scientific.” On the other hand, members of the literary community find ethnography as “too scientific and not sufficiently artful” (Ellis et al., 8). Hence, ethnographers fit nicely in the social sciences.

Other critics consider ethnography as a form of “solipsistic self-indulgence” (Grant and Zeeman, 2). Grant counters this claim by stating that the author (“or this expert of experience”) would need to be “autonomous” and “culturally disconnected from other people” to be considered solipsistic. That is, no writer is disconnected from everyone. There is a universal message in every story.

There is a compelling message in Grant’s story, and I find the story of his mother to be one of the most compelling cases that I have read in Research Methods 5002. Grant eloquently combines the elements of a good story with research methodology. He is also able to challenge the status quo of a “singular, master, dominant narrative of a happy family and a happy childhood.” He gives voice and identity to those who are marginalized and silenced. If Alec Grant is able to help others by sharing his story, then I say autoethnography is a powerful research method! 

Interview with Alec Grant