Understanding autoethnography

I’ll be honest: I am completely terrified by the thought of undergoing the autoethnographic process.

My entire academic life has been about removing myself from an experience or concept when exploring and understanding it. My entire public writing process has always been very objective, based on years of teaching and schooling that prioritises being completely detached from your work.

That is in no way to say I am not reflective – I have a journal and spend countless hours inside my own head – but I immensely dislike being public about my thoughts or opinions. To insert my understanding of the world into a piece of work is truly the most foreign concept to me.

So, I will push myself this semester, and use this post to undergo a degree of autoethnography as I explore the process itself.

The article from Ellis et al. describes the autoethnographic process as a combination of autobiography and ethnography. The goal is to use elements from both methods to create a product that interweaves analysis and personal experience.

I always have a vague awareness at the back of my mind when reading articles and published papers that the author had a specific agenda during the entire research process: from the topic, to what information is present or omitted. But rarely does someone formally acknowledge that agenda, those biases, the experiences that led to that specific contextual product.

Autoethnography is upfront about this aspect of the research process. Its autobiographical nature means that the experiences of the researcher are important aspects of the process, and that they communicate their cultural framework to the reader. This highlights the notion of epiphanies, as it is clear why certain parts of the project have a deep impact on the work for the author.

The ethnography aspect comes through as the researcher actively participates and makes meaning of a culture through exploring its values, beliefs, behaviour, and practices.

Once combined, an autoethnographer can analyse the cultural experience, and present it to others in a meaningful way. It is important that the finished product is a text that is accessible and engaging, to reach wider audiences and promote understanding.

The critiques of the autoethnographic process are understandable – too emotional to be a factual ethnography, and not artful enough to be an autobiography. Living in a society that discredits emotion and personal factors in research means that autoethnography is not mainstream and so we are unused to it. That is why it is so strange to me – so foreign of a concept. Perhaps the more people who are exposed to the process, the more we can understand why autoethnography can be a useful tool.

For the moment, I will consider it as this: challenging, meaningful, and truthful.

Ellis, C, Adams, T E, & Bochner AP 2011, ‘Autoethnography: An Overview’, Forum: Qualitative Social Research, vol. 12, no. 1, <http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/1589/3095&gt;.

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