What is Autoethnography?

Yesterday, I revisited the TwitterGroups webpage where I recently created the Autoethnography Twitter Group. While there, I noticed a new feature that was incomplete, namely the Description area. I thought this was as good a time as any to put in a description of not only the group, but of autoethnography itself.

I am often asked what the $%^& is autoethnography, anyway, so thought now is as good a time as any to define it. Given this qualitative methodology and my upcoming paper at the 5th International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry, here is my definition of autoethnography:

Autoethnography is a form of qualitative research where the researcher explores his or her own experience as a focus of investigation. It acknowledges the power of the researcher to explore his or her own life more closely than others are able, and it connects the personal story to the participatory cultures while engaging the reader to share in the vibrancy of the experience.

How does this feel and seem and sound and look to you?

15 thoughts on “What is Autoethnography?

  1. I know that you, Jeffrey, have spent a lot more time and thinking on this. Coming straight from identity debates with my fellow students, though, it strikes me, how little the approach used to be acknowledged and valued in the past. It does seem to be strongly correlated with the high level of status we assign to objectivity which interferes with the obvious lack of such in auto-ethnographic projects. I believe that reflecting on the extent to which we can be objective and what contributions can be made by consciously researching in a rather subjective manner would be the way forward. Yet, this touches upon the can of worms called ‘Methodenstreit’, I reckon.

  2. @Britta Bohlinger

    What is methodenstreit?!

    You know, I think the rise in autoethnography has something more to do with an overall concern toward multiculturalism and diversity. In polite society, it is often encouraged to be accepting of difference (whatever the personal beliefs may be), and it is this difference amidst similarity that autoethnography itself studies.

    In many ways, new paradigm qualitative methods, such as autoethnography, push the boundaries of objectivity to such an extent that I wonder how much a researcher out there can ever really know about me and the complex perspectives and experience that I face and the composite product with which I travel through life.

  3. Methodenstreit refers back to a more than 200 year long dispute over epistemological issues. It is about objectivity versus subjectivity, human and cultural sciences versus natural sciences. In this sense the argument over methods actually refers rather to the underlying methodology.

    I was wondering whether even the meaning of auto-ethnography has been changing as ethnography itself refers to the intense immersing of the researcher into a culture and engaging with practices and individuals that – decades ago was much more of the clearly separated arena or a more sharply distinguished sub-culture. Nowadays we witness an increasing number of melting-pot cultures and mosaic societies (not least to new national formations, globalisation and travel), also the boundaries between sub-culture and dominant culture seem to be rather getting blurred (perhaps just an illusion, though).

    I find Ellis and Bochner’s (2000) definition of ‘an autobiographical genre of writing that displays multiple layers of consciousness, connecting the personal to the cultural’ a very helpful one, yet, the problem starts with the application to past analyses (say Freud, Foucault, Mauss) where reflexivity was not as explicitly required and applied as it is nowadays.

  4. @Britta Bohlinger

    That definition that you mentioned, with the “multiple levels of consciousness” is a bit too new-age for what I think the method really does (BTW, I like a lot of new age things, but that opens an entirely new level of discussions when speaking about qualitative work).

    I think that one of the issues you raised, namely of the variety of modalities, and how things are not quite as clear-cut as they used to appear at times is more of an important issue. Many people seem to like clear definitions and ways of looking at issues, but I think that autoethnography helps to demonstrate that life is much more complicated and complex than the nice neat little boxes in which we like to classify things.

  5. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why autoethnography is among the approaches which tend to be seen more sceptically? As those phenomena, social practices and relations we observe as researchers are indeed highly complex and multi-layered, our methods need to reflect them accordingly.

    At the expense of objectivity we are able to investigate the field but yet, as subjectivity would reduce the value of academic contribution the turn to reflexivity and consciousness has gained more importance. As we still know very little about unconsciousness (it’s subject to discourse if we follow Foucault and the social constructivists) we are indeed at a challenging point. Perhaps the unconscious is among the very overrated concepts…just as objectivity?

  6. Hi Jeffrey, this seems to overlap with Arthur Frank using a narrative or his ‘Illness is an occasion for autobiography’. The self that is claimed is dialogical, and the tension of this dialogue is to include the voices of others without assimilating these voices to one’s own. Physician memoirs, a spiritual autobiography, and a web site are presented as examples of dialogical autobiographical work occasioned by illness.
    “All else is means; dialogue is the end. A single voice ends nothing and resolves nothing. Two voices is the minimum for life.”
    (Mikhail Bakhtin)

    regarding ethnographies, there is an excellent article I recently read:
    Agar, Michael. (2006). An ethnography by any other name… [Electronic Version]. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 7. Retrieved 3 March 2009 from http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/177/395.

  7. Hi Ailsa, thanks for posting the link to Agar’s article – it is a brilliant one and it provides something of a historicity (to borrow from Jean-Paul Sartre) or that makes me wonder to what extent researchers are actually aware of the politics of academic discourses they are part of, engaging in and subjected to? Agar provides us with a view that is very valuable, I believe, as he questions the methodological aspects as well as the institutional without ignoring the socio-political dimensions which shape the flow of resources available to researchers. I know you are critical of the the multiple layers of consciousness, Jeffrey, but after having read this, I see indeed more than one layer of consciousness that would need to inform autoethnographic work. Stuart Hall’s concept of the national unconscious could be useful in this regard.

  8. @Britta Bohlinger

    I am not quite a critic of multiple layers of consciousness; rather, I am concerned that the language use itself around this area can preclude the very discussion it seeks to expose.

    Tell me more about Stuart Hall . . .

  9. Was wondering what are the main differences between reflexive ethnography and auto ethnography

  10. @Sherene

    Thank you for finding my discussion here and adding to it! I am only I did not see your question sooner.

    Autoethnography is a research method that is used in a qualitative strategy of inquiry. I am not very sure what reflexive ethnography is. Do you have a link or some reference for what that is, and then we can explore them together?

  11. @Britta Bohlinger

    Thank you for the reference, Britta. This text seems interesting and I just ordered a copy.

    Wonderful sharing and learning can occur online, huh?

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