The article begins with a definition that I always find a useful starting point when learning about something new:
“Autoethnography is an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyse personal experience in order to understand cultural experience. This approach challenges canonical ways of doing research and representing others and treats research as a political, socially-just and socially-conscious act. A researcher uses tenets of autobiography and ethnography to do and write autoethnography is both process and product.” (Ellis, Adams and Bochner 2011: 273).
Autoethnography as a concept was borne out of the uncertainties and challenges of postmodernism and a reconsideration of both the objectives of social sciences and its forms of inquiry. This encouraged a move away from the scientific model of research towards methods and approaches more akin to literature and the arts, through a focus on stories rather than theories and recognition that personal experience can influence the research process however scientific it might purport to be. In doing so, autoethnography embraces subjectivity and emotions and the researcher’s influence on their work rather than hiding behind claims of neutrality. Ellis, Adams and Bochner explain that:
“Autoethnography, . . . expands and opens up a wider lens on the world, eschewing rigid definitions of what constitutes meaningful and useful research; this approach also helps us understand how the kinds of people we claim, or are perceived, to be influence interpretations of what we study, how we study it, and what we say about our topic.” (Ellis, Adams and Bochner 2011: 275).
A significant aspect of autobiography is the recounting of epiphanies – significant moments in our lives that trigger a change in our lives. Ethnographers, on the other hand, study these experiences in terms of their cultural values and beliefs, by being participant observers in the process. They are expected to comply with social science publishing conventions in analysing their experiences and using methodological tools and research literature to make sense of them.
A key aspect of ethnographic research is the “thick description”. This provides the cultural background to the research and provides an aesthetic and evocative discourse using evidence such as field notes and interviews, and storytelling to convey personal and cultural experiences.
A form of autoethnography that appeals to me is reflexive ethnography – a methodology that charts changes in the researcher as a result of doing fieldwork – in my case photography. Personal narratives of the researcher’s experience are presented alongside data, analysis and relevant literature. However, not surprisingly, this approach is often criticised, particularly if it is not accompanied by data and a fulsome review of relevant literature. It is questioned in terms of its reliability, generalisability and validity and its focus on self. As a consequence the method has been labelled as self-indulgent, narcissistic and introspective. Much of this is assessed in terms of the credibility of the narrator. It is also questioned in terms of its comparison to more traditional scientific research methods and also against social scientific standards for being limited in its rigour, both theoretical and analytical.
The underlying assumption of qualitative research such as autoethnography is that reality and truth are shaped through interaction with the environment. This is consistent with the empiricist approach to epistemology in that we get to know about things through our experience of them – a position I subscribe to. However, a qualitative approach opposes the positivist position that considers reality to be objective and independent of the researcher that I would, at this point, agree with. So do I have a dilemma?
I don’t think so for the simple reason that the search for knowledge operates in object oriented ontology at two levels: the knowledge of facts about the world and whether they are inter-subjectively verifiable, the second level is the awareness of being that stands behind the object of perceptual experience, which is the route to knowledge that is contested in much of traditional epistemology.
So, how might autoethnography be useful to me in developing my research? I have already developed a reflective approach to my practice through writing this Critical Research Journal – which includes commentary on my work in progress, reflections of other photographers’ work and reviews of academic reading I have undertaken, such as this. My first degree in History provided me with the skills to write with reference to evidence and my long career in higher education gave me the skills to write in an informed and clear way. My early work as a police photographer trained me as a meticulous and skilled photographer paying attention to detail at all times.
It would be possible to incorporate autoethnography into my work were I to choose to take it in this direction and it may be that this aspect of my work might be submitted for examination as a film where I talk about my research, research methods and findings. My early photographic portfolio on the road to Elgol paid explicit attention to my experience of the road based on phenomenology. However, my work developed along a different route in the latter stages of my MA and I now believe that my search for the ephemeral hiddenness of Skye, through an attempt to capture reality, is the way I wish to proceed with my photography. At this stage, I would argue that my practise is likely to develop in such a way that I will need to develop multiple ways of accessing reality and that this may well require me to enter a non-conscious state. Were I to do this, it would be difficult to argue that I can reflect on my experience effectively at the critical moment of capture! But, the journey continues . . .
ELLIS, Carolyn, ADAMS, Tony E, and Bochner Arthur P. 2011. Autoethnography: An Overview. Historical Social Research, Vol 36-2011-No 4, 273-290.
MENDEZ, Mariza. 2013. Autoethnography as a Research Method: Advantages, limitations and criticisms. Bogata, Columbia p 279-287 June-December 2013. Vol 15 No 2.