Autoethnography with Carolyn Ellis and Art Bochner

We are introducing ourselves at the beginning of  their pre-conference session. What a fascinating cross-section of people: doctoral students, a few master’s students, faculty, researchers, and investigators. People are from all over the world, including even some introducing themselves through translators. I am amazed how interdisciplinary the audeice here is, and with the number of faculty members who tell about how they want to integrate autoethnography and these sorts of qualitative methods within research departments. Educational programs, communications programs, sociology programs, and  nursing / health programs seem to include most of the attendees.

Amazing how many people are here and are actively using this method in research projects.

There is a lot of love and passion here in the room, and Carolyn used that as her introduction into what she does and how she justifies it. She begins by contextualizing it.

With autoethnography, she begins by speaking about ethnography, which is the study of a culture, with its literature, experiences, traditions, and meaning-making structures. It involves both art and science.

If we were to focus on the science part, we would want to be neutral and try to accurately describe what is happening with them (ethnographic study) over there, in a neutral and objective manner. Generalizabillity and concepts to explain things would be useful, as well as what theory is being used, the variables, etc. In this manner, you would be the researcher only observing, and not experiencing or actively participating in it. The research voice would be used, and is the single voice of the text. in a more scientific form, it ends with a conclusion.  This model is a reporter—just reporting what objectively happened.

As a researcher, if we wanted to be more artistic, we may start with a story. Embody your topic. We would have multiple voices. Use the participants’ voices to show you are there. We would share authority, as try to get text in multiple voices. More arts-focused research projects are structured in a variety off ways, and when it ends there is often the perspective that explains what the researcher learns and invites the reader to consider his or her own thoughts. This is intended to generate some kind of response / effect in the reader.

Autoethnography has combinations between autobiography and ethnography. It is my thinking and feeling with what is going on with them (the ethnographic other). Writing autoethnography wants to evoke the reader.

How do you read qualitative articles? Abstract and conclusions seem to be how many people read traditional journal articles. More arts-based writers try to engage the reader with a specific experience.

Autoethnographic writing often has dialogue, plot, etc.

Art’s proposition: All scholarship is a form of communication.

The researcher is always part of the research data (Art believes now), though he was taught  the complete opposite—the researcher should be absent and not included in the research at all. To do this, it is common in qualitative dissertations that it begins with a story. The first chapter often addresses the researcher’s story, in other words what brings me to this research (why am I interested in this). Another component of this is about how do you change in this project? Why do research if you do not learn anything (or otherwise already know it)?

What we write in the name of research is written for others. We do not write it for ourselves. Is this research project just for me? What do I owe to those people who I study? What is the exchange (ethics) if we take stories from another and then do not give them anything back.

All stories have some elements—time, characters, plot, scene, action

How do you do this? Consider immediacy and write a story that makes the person jump off the page and be alive. Writers do this (as opposed to reporters who just “report” what happened.

What keeps us reading? Action, tension, trouble.

Autoethnographers get into trouble at times for having stories about trouble and loss and tragedy. However, these are the issues that keep people’s interested.

Narrative methodology holds that writing is part of the inquiry. This is the opposite of what we were taught in grade school—begin with your thesis (in other words, begin with the main point even though we have not written it yet). Narrative method understands the narrative through the process itself.

For autoethnography, write and create the effect of reality. Do this as a believable writer / researcher. In putting myself on the page, it is warts and all, as this makes it more believable. The vulnerability of the researcher helps the reader to trust.

They gave us a four page copy of Maternal Connections, a short piece that Carolyn wrote in the Ellis and Bochner text Composing Ethnography. We read the piece individually during the break, and then the participants discussed the meanings and what struck us readers about the story. I am trying to connect this story to research. There is quite a bit of discussion about what was going on there, and how it seemed to draw different readers in different ways. This then developed into a discussion about contextualized truth and how it can be evaluated.

It seems that autoethnography requires that the author faces his or her issues and then publicly airs those experiences. This seemed that this is a big issue that has come to many of the participants in the room.

What role does ethics play in all this? How does this work with the autoethnographic author when writing about the experiences of others. What is ethical to write about in a situation? The researcher has the ability to write the story in any  way that is wanted, though the issue of ethics arises in many different ways.

Autoethnography does not need to be about you as the main focus of the research, but that you (me) as the author still enters the story as a character in the story, even if it is mainly about somebody else.

Somebody just asked a question from the perspective of critical race theory, and to what extent this is or is not believable. Interesting question that now invites me to consider some other topics.

When you write your own story, it is never only our own story as it often involves others.

I asked a question about Maternal Connections, as I initially thought this was part of a larger piece of autoethnographic piece. Carolyn and Art responded that this four-page work is the entire autoethnographic research in itself. No literature review, no findings, no stated theory, etc. Research can be thought of as on a continuum, and our job is then for us to have our voices in the piece, knowing that this work will be accepted in some research journals / sources / communities, but not in others. Carolyn stated that this short story is really pushing the bounds of qualitative research.

I have to think about this idea a little more, as it is personally a little troublesome. This is one of the issues that I am happy to struggle with it, as it will help me learn something new. Learning in this regard is a nice reminder of how painful an experience education really can be. In fact, this is one of the reasons I came to this conference in the first place–I want to learn, and there is no better place to grapple and learn about these issues than with those who have done the most with raising them in the first place. If I come to a conference and do not have something that makes me reflect and consider other possibilities, then either  it was the wrong conference for me or I was not ready to face it.

When doing autoethnographic research, issues in and around the IRB are important and handle this in a different way. As Art said when encouraging IRB submission and approval, “Protect thyself.”

For advisors, it is important to know if people (who want to write with autoethnography) are capable of doing it or not.