Autoethnography: What Makes You So Special?

When I first figured out what “autoethnography” was, and the definition is simple enough (autobiography and ethnography meet, fall in love, get married, and make a beautiful baby), I couldn’t help but rhetorically wonder that same line from Captain America, “What makes you so special?” and Steve Rogers’ simple, humble response: “Nothing. I’m just a kid from Brooklyn.”  

For me, at first, the concept of autoethnography made me wonder of its practicers, “What makes them think they’re so special?  What makes anyone think, presume, that their experience is ever representative of members of the group at large?”  Indeed, my initial reaction to this research method was actually slightly validated by both Sarah Wall’s “An Autoethnography on Learning about Autoethnography” when she wrote that “… autoethnography has been criticized for being self-indulgent, narcissistic, introspective” (p. 155) as well as Alec J. Grant and Laetitia Zeeman’s article “Whose Story Is It? An Autoethnography Concerning Narrative Identity” when they mention the phrase “solipsistic self-indulgence.” (p. 2)  I think I actually laughed out loud at that line (although maybe that was just because Shirley McLaine willed it so with her mind!) and recalled the countless, corny disclaimers on pretty much everything that remind us, always, that “the views expressed do not represent blah blah blah…”  

But the more I read about the process, the more I came to understand the role of the researcher in shaping the meaning of the story, through his analytical lens.  With my skepticism (and cynicism) validated, I read on, finally making my way to “Autoethnography: An Overview” (which, in retrospect, I should have probably read first) by Carolyn Ellis, Tony E. Adams, and Arthur P. Bochner.  One of the first quotes that tempered my cynicism was the advice to autoethnographers to “look at experience analytically. Otherwise [you’re] telling [your] story—and that’s nice—but people do that on Oprah … every day. Why is your story more valid than anyone else’s?” The other two articles had mentioned what I thought was a major weakness of autoethnography, but they hadn’t offered great advice on how to avoid that particular pitfall.  “An Overview” continued, Steve Rogers style, with a simple, humble answer: “What makes your story more valid is that you are a researcher. You have a set of theoretical and methodological tools and a research literature to use. That’s your advantage.”  Well, it isn’t growing up in Brooklyn, but it’s not bad…

“An Overview” was a succinct, well, overview of the process, the product, and the potential issues and criticisms of the method, that detailed many different approaches along with their pros and cons.  I thought this was extremely valuable for our class’s purposes, as it gave multiple options to what I originally thought was a mostly singular, narrative-based and totally retrospective process.  

I think one of the most interesting, and unexpected, elements of autoethnography was its application as part of a therapeutic process.  The phenomenon of “witnessing” was discussed, and became a bridge for the “participants and readers” to come together and find common ground in a shared experience.  I don’t think this was meant to say that the writer of the autoethnography was trying to push his experience to the forefront.  Instead, it really got to the heart of what an autoethnography is supposed to be: something along the lines of, This was my experience, and while I don’t pretend to speak for all of us, maybe you’ve gone through the same thing.  Let’s try to understand this thing together.   This new understanding of autoethnography was described in the line, “As witnesses, autoethnographers not only work with others to validate the meaning of their pain, but also allow participants and readers to feel validated and/or better able to cope with or want to change their circumstances.”

But the true gem in this piece came in its conclusion.  I think many people, especially creative writers, are turned off by the concept of research in general.  It’s too cold, too clinical, too scientific.  We just want to write a good story, and tell our truth, and that’s what autoethnography offers.  “An Overview” concludes, “Autoethnography, as method, attempts to disrupt the binary of science and art.”  It can allow writers to draw on their strengths, and to not only tell a great story, but one that really matters.  And that’s what makes it so special.