This post is from Dr Lynelle Watts, an early career researcher and one of the curators of this blog. Autoethnography has become a popular method in social work research and this post is a reflection on it as a method. Lynelle finds methods interesting and is hopeful others out there do as well – you can contact her at email@example.com
One of the methods I utilised in my doctoral research on reflective practice in Australian social work education was autoethnography. Autoethnography is an increasingly popular method for engaging in reflection on a range of social phenomena. Autoethnography is a term for research that explores the connections between culture, the wider society and the self (Chang, 2008). It does so by using the reflective practices of the researcher as subject. As I was embarking on studying an aspect of my own professional tribe the method seemed a good way to get started. The term autoethnography was first coined by David Hayano (Anderson, 2006; Ellis & Bochner, 2000) and the method gained wider audiences through Carolyn Ellis and Art Bochner’ paper Autoethnography, personal narrative, reflexivity – Researcher as subject published in the Handbook of Qualitative Research (2000). Since then papers using autoethnographic practices have exploded – even a cursory Google Scholar search brings up approx 16,200 results in the date range 2000 to 2017.
The emphasis on culture is no accident. The method emerged from the discipline of anthropology and it retains this core foundational aspect. Prior to Ellis and Bochner’s paper, Deborah Reed-Danahay (1997) discussed autoethnography as a method for incorporating the autobiographical within ethnography. Likewise, in a recent text on autoethnography as
method, Chang (2008) also emphasises the cultural aspect suggesting that culture is inherently a group phenomenon but that it is accessible through the exploration of the self. The assumption is that culture is already in play. In my study, this meant exploring the impact of gaining a professional identity as a social worker and how reflection had become a marker or proxy for this development. I did so by tracing my trajectory from student social worker, practitioner and then back to university as a social work lecturer. The second aspect is also core to autoethnographic research: self as the researcher-subject. Negotiating these aspects – culture and self – makes autoethnography a tricky enterprise.
My interest in autoethnographic research began as an undergraduate when it was first presented by one of my lecturers. When I picked it as one of the methods for my own doctoral research some criticisms had begun to emerge about the method. One of these was ethics of consent (Medford, 2006; Tolich, 2010). Ethics of consent refers to “respect for the participants’ autonomy, the voluntary nature of their participation, or of documenting the informed consent processes” (Tolich, 2010, p. 1600). It means thinking about how people might be affected and/or represented by the story being told through the autoethnography. The thing specific to autoethnography is the need for anticipatory ethical reflection on these matters both during and after the research. For example, as Tolich points out retrospective consent is hardly possible as it would be compromised by the very process of the research which is exploring incidents where others are sometimes treated as bystanders. In other words, did these bystanders know their encounter with you is part of your research? This gets to the heart of a question posed by Clandinin and Connelly (2000, cited in Chang, 2008, p. 69); a question important for potential autoethnographers to consider “Do they own a story because they tell it?” I had to wrestle with this issue in terms of people around me as I was conducting the study. It is important to consider who might be affected by your telling of the story.
Tolich called for autoethnographers to adopt the same ethical standards outlined in the various position statements on Qualitative Research and Institutional Review Boards from the Congress of Qualitative Inquiry. These include considering who is likely to be affected. Hence, Tolich (2010, p, 1605) suggests two main considerations to think about at the outset “First, choose the topic very carefully. Second, treat all the persons mentioned in the text as vulnerable, including the researcher.” I highly recommend using Tolich’s (2010, pp. 1608-9) ten (10) foundational guidelines for autoethnography as these cover issues of consent, consultation and vulnerability. It is important to consider these issues not only at the outset but as your project evolves too.
Another issue I encountered with the method is that there are also different autoethnographic camps. The debate here is about whether autoethnographic accounts should incorporate objective vs. subjective stances. In the Ellis and Bochner camp, autoethnographic accounts are meant to be “evocative”, emotionally engaging and, thus, are considered primarily subjective (Chang, 2008). Thus this camp is known as evocative although this term is later contested by Ellis and Bochner (2006). Evocative means that the account uses a descriptive and expressive writing style that rejects a more sociological account. What this means is that the text itself is meant to work at eliciting emotion. In contrast, anthropologist Anderson (2006) argues for an autoethnography that is more realist (objective) in its orientation and outlines some basic principles for producing this kind of autoethnography. Anderson is also interested in ensuring that autoethnography utilises systematic forms of data collection and some basic criteria to establish cultural membership status pf the researcher in being able to speak to the topic. Anderson calls this analytic autoethnography. I opted for a third way. I felt that writing evocatively need not discount a realist orientation to produce a compelling account of self, culture and society but I agreed that thinking carefully about issues of data generation and analysis were equally important.
Autoethnographic accounts also rely on researcher reflexivity but appear to have a barely developed account of what this entails. Lynch (2000), helpfully outlined different varieties of reflexivity and these can be considered in relation to specific kinds of topics/projects. While it took some work I found it was useful to compare and contrast the different kinds of autoethnography. I did so against a number of categories and orientations: Reality, epistemology, data generation and researcher visibility in the text, membership of the cultural group, research or setting, focus of the research, kind of reflexivity and, lastly, the kind of reasoning required. The table below outlines the similarities and differences between analytic, evocative and my own approach:
If you are thinking of using autoethnography, it is worth exploring your own assumptions at the outset – it will help in your research design, in choosing your methods for creating the self-culture-societal narratives, and assist you in thinking about other kinds of data that may be useful. It’s also important to consider the ethical dimensions of your project at the beginning but it’s likely you will need to do so all through the process. These processes and sources helped immensely with conducting my research as they provided a strong foundation through which to explore my topic. For folks interested in some contemporary examples in social work check out Narrating social work through autoethnography (2014), edited by Stanley Witkin. They are all great examples but a personal favourite of mine is by Karen Staller (2014) – evocative, analytical and at times lyrical – Staller ably showcases the results of the method beautifully.
Anderson, L. (2006). Analytic autoethnography. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 35(4), 373-395. doi: 10.1177/0891241605280449
Chang, H. (2008). Autoethnography as Method. Walnut Creek, USA: Taylor and Francis.
Charmaz, K. (2006). The power of names. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 35(4), 396-399. doi: 10.1177/08912416062869
Ellis, C., & Bochner, A. P. (2000). Autoethnography, personal narrative, reflexivity – Researcher as subject. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (2 ed., pp. 733-767). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Ellis, C. S., & Bochner, A. P. (2006). Analyzing Analytic Autoethnography. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 35(4), 429-449. doi: 10.1177/0891241606286979
Hacking, I. (1999). The social construction of what? Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Lynch, M. (2000). Against reflexivity as an academic virtue and source of privileged knowledge. Theory, Culture & Society, 17(26), 26-54. doi: 10.1177/02632760022051202
Medford, K. (2006). Caught with a fake ID: Ethical questions about slippage in autoethnography. Qualitative Inquiry, 12(5), 853-864. doi: 10.1177/1077800406288618
Reed-Danahay, D. E. (1997). Introduction. In D. E. Reed-Danahay (Ed.), Auto/Ethnography (pp. 1-20). New York: Berg.
Schwandt, T. A. (2000). Three epistemological stances for qualitative inquiry. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of Qualitative Research (pp. 189-216). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Staller, K. (2014). What remains? Heroic stories in trace materials. In S. Witkin, L. (Ed.), Narrating Social Work through Autoethnography (pp. 141-176). New York: Columbia University Press.
Tolich, M. (2010). A critique of current practice: Ten foundational guidelines for autoethnographers. Qualitative health research, 20(12), 1599-1610. doi: 10.1177/1049732310376076
Witkin, S. (Ed.). (2014). Narrating Social Work through Autoethnography. Columbia, USA: Columbia University Press.