Introduction to Autoethnography

This marks my first autoethnographic blog entry as part of my masters dissertation. I have read the book pictured above to get a better understanding of the origins of the method, the ethical issues surrounding it, the different styles and purposes for using autoethnography and how to get started. Before I read the book I had only a very basic understanding of it, yet I knew it was the most suitable method for the topic I’m exploring and also for me as someone whose strengths lie in reflecting on my own experiences and practice. I am excited by the creative potential of the method, in particular by the different techniques that can be used. This blog has manifold purpose: it will help me to document my progress using autoethnography, and hopefully my gradual familiarisation with this way of writing. It will act as a space for me to record my reactions, thoughts and feelings regarding interactions I’ve had with digital objects and art works which I hope to reference within the text of my dissertation. I will update the blog each time I read any significant theory, or if there is a change in direction of ideas. Lastly, it will act as a place for me to work through and articulate myself in a less formal and academic way, to establish and verbalise next steps and add more structure to the dissertation writing process. I’m sure over the next few months I will find it almost therapeutic to do this. As stated in the above book, many autoethnographic writers recommend a daily writing practice and making time to write as part of a daily routine. Whilst I agree that it’s important and warrants regular attention, practice and updates, I think it would be unrealistic for me to commit to a certain number of hours each day as I will also be writing the thesis itself.

For the remainder of this post I will introduce autoethnography, highlighting key points relevant to my project that will inform the research design. All information has been taken from the above book. To begin with, the following six points are highlighted as typical to autoethnographic writing:

  • Foreground personal experience in research and writing – rather than disregard the personal reasons that lead us to choose a particular research topic, autoethnographers make use of the personal experience and subjectivity in the design of their work. Many write about the feelings, attitudes and beliefs they have about a cultural phenomena or experience. Often an epiphany (a remarkable, unordinary life-changing experience) catalyses the research, causing us to call into question some aspect of our lives. I will discuss my personal epiphany in the next blog post.
  • Autoethnographers illustrate sense-making processes – they show how and why a particular experience is important, difficult or transformative. Importantly, they provide a perspective that can be useful to others when making sense of similar experiences.
  • Use and show reflexivity – autoethnographers use reflexivity to ‘trouble the relationship’ between the self and others. Reflexivity means looking back at experiences to consider how they influence our present work and also to acknowledge the research in relation to power. The authors of the book who all practice autoethnography in some form, claim that they try to account for their identities, limitations and perspectives in relation to their research topics. They state, ‘I use reflexivity to scrutinize my experiences of self/ culture, to illustrate how the autoethnographer is an “audience to her or his own experience” and can turn “back to signify this lived world” with and for readers.’
  • Illustrate insider knowledge of cultural phenomenon/experience – it provides insight into experiences that cannot otherwise be observed directly or recreated for the purposes of an experiment. An ‘insider’ can describe the nuance, complexity, emotion and meaning of the experience they have lived through.
  • Autoethnographers describe and critique cultural norms, experiences and practices – they offer ‘thick descriptions’ to question often taken-for-granted norms in new, complicated and challenging ways to facilitate social-consciousness. Or:

Bernadette Calafell says [autoethnographies], “create spaces of resonance, possibility and activation for the reader”

  • Autoethnographers seek reciprocal responses from readers – they attempt to cultivate reciprocal relationships with readers, participants and audiences too. This does not refer to a literal giving and taking type of reciprocation, but describes the relationship between the autoethnographic researcher and all others involved.

After reading this I found it surprising how closely it fitted my (albeit initially loose) intentions for my research. The experience that inspired it, whilst not about identity politics or any particularly sensitive topic, was about culture of a different kind – of engagement with art, of museum culture, of meaning-making and connecting to the past. The reason the experience struck a cord with me will emerge over the next few weeks as I continue to read widely and discuss it openly. I hope that other moments of epiphany occur as I encounter new and unexpected digital art works. If or when these moments do occur, I will be prepared with the appropriate writing technique and will have more confidence around the narrative voice I’d like to use. I am undecided between two forms of autoethnographic representation – ‘Realism’ and ‘Expressionism’ – The former utilises the perspective of the researcher as well as the participants to create a sense of verisimilitude, the latter focuses on expressing the researchers internal feelings and emotions presenting experiences from a thoroughly subjective perspective. The expressionist way of writing intends to engage readers emotionally and explore meanings around epiphanies. I may, in fact, use a combination of the two, also combining first, second and third person voices across different parts of the thesis. It may be challenging to find a balance between planning what I write and treating it organically, which will be essential when describing my own feelings. The following quote reflects this really well and seems like an appropriate place to end today’s blog post:

Social life is messy, uncertain, and emotional. If our desire is to research social life, then we must embrace a research method that, to the best of its/our ability, acknowledges and accommodates mess and chaos, uncertainty and emotion.

Carolyn Ellis (2014), in: Autoethnography

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