Summary and Keywords
Autoethnography is an increasingly popular form of postpositivist narrative inquiry that has recently begun to appear in educational contexts. The multiple lineages of autoethnography include the insider accounts of early anthropologists, literary approaches to life history and autobiography, responses to the ontological/epistemological challenges of postmodern philosophies, feminist and postcolonial insistence on including narratives of the marginalized, performance and communication scholarship, and the interest in personal stories of contemporary therapeutic and trauma cultures. Approaches vary widely from fragmented, experimental, performative, and multimodal texts through to realist tales. Advocates claim that autoethnography enables us to live more reflective, more meaningful, and more just lives.
Autoethnography has been associated with particular events, texts, and scholars. Its proliferation since the turn of the century has been facilitated by networks of people and ideas that intersect, sustain, and challenge each other. This article traces autoethnography as it emerges, becomes established as a method, and is extended and contested as an interdisciplinary qualitative method. It provides close readings of several seminal texts and contexts, and it examines how it has been taken up in education. Innovative approaches and new directions are considered for their potential to refresh the field.
Autoethnography first appears in the 1970s in the works of American anthropologists. However, the term was initially used in widely different ways, indicating that it had not yet been moored to any agreed-upon meaning within a scholarly discourse community.1 Karl Heider uses it within a conventional anthropological study with children in Irian Jaya, asking them “What do people do?” He describes this as “auto-ethnography,” in which “auto” alludes to the word “autochthonous” (meaning indigenous, local to that place), since it was the Dani children’s “own account,” as well as to the word “automatic” because his simple open-ended question elicited almost automatic responses from the children (Heider, 1975). While representation of social and cultural life by cultural insiders has remained a tenet of autoethnography to the present, the mediation of the outsider anthropologist has since entirely disappeared. Several years later, Walter Goldschmidt describes his presidential address to the American Anthropologist Association as an “autoethnographic appraisal” of “the coming crisis” in the discipline of anthropology and more widely in American culture and values. He positions autoethnography as a reflexive stance on one’s own culture suggesting that the “special genius” of anthropology is “to see respondents as people, to see behavior in context, to see meaning and purpose in the everyday event” (1977, p. 302) and that these skills are necessary in the era of Vietnam, Watergate, hippies, rising religious fundamentalism, and a turning away from scientific and scholarly thought (1977). Culture in this sense is understood at the widest scale, where cultures in crisis (academic, disciplinary, social, economic, ethical) warrant the particular insights that anthropologist-insiders can bring. He warns his audience against “being lost in a cloud of particulars” because powerful cultural critique must balance close analysis with the capacity to maintain a holistic perspective and generate holistic theory (1977, p. 302).
Reinforcing the power of insider critique, David Hayano constructs the first comprehensive mapping of “paradigms, problems and prospects” of auto-ethnography in anthropology (1979). Many previous studies that did not use that term are repositioned within the “omnibus spectrum” of autoethnography (Hayano, 1979, p. 103). He notes that although “autoethnography is not a specific research technique, method or theory, it colors all three as they are employed in fieldwork” (1979, p. 99). Self-identification and insider status are crucial, intensive participant observation is its core strategy, and it produces highly detailed descriptive accounts. In contemporary autoethnography, the situated, partial, subjective, insider stance remains central.
The 1980s saw a disciplinary drift of autoethnography as it expanded beyond anthropology and incorporated more literary modes of analysis, although it was not yet consolidated as a qualitative research method. The first coupling of postmodernism with autoethnography appears in Françoise Lionnet’s (1989) close reading of African-American anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiography Dust tracks on a road (1942) as an exemplary “autoethnography” inflected by postmodern conceptions of fluid and multidimensional subjectivity. Ethnicity is mediated through language and history, and the text draws attention to style through exaggeration, vivid imagery, poetic language, allegory, aesthetic sensibilities, and textual performance of the self. The self-conscious movement of her text “from the general (the history of Eatonville) to the particular (Zora’s life, her family, and friends) and back to the general (religion, culture, and world politics in the 1940s)” (1989, p. 100), prefigures more recent definitions of autoethnography (e.g., Ellis, 2004). This interest in overtly literary elements of the text continues to feature in much contemporary autoethnography.
During the 1990s, the literary impulse in autoethnography continues, and it begins to appear as a research method with wide disciplinary scope. Early in the decade, literary scholar Mary Louise Pratt situates autoethnography as a postcolonial strategy—one of the “literate arts of the contact zone” (1992). Through analyzing Incan letters to Spanish authorities, she shows how colonized subjects construct their own accounts “in response to or in dialogue with those metropolitan representations” (1992, p. 7). They do not seek authenticity, but are “partial collaborations with and appropriations of the idioms of the conqueror” (1992, p. 7). They adopt the conqueror’s tropes of travel and exploration, and infiltrate these with indigenous perspectives. The strategic deployment and disruption of powerful modes of discourse can still be seen in some contemporary approaches to autoethnography, and in emerging Indigenous appropriations of autoethnography. Later in the decade, anthropologist Deborah Reed-Danahy publishes the edited collection Auto/Ethnography (1997). She suggests that autoethnography can be used in a “double sense,” synthesizing “both a postmodern ethnography in which the realist conventions and objective observer position of standard ethnography is called into question, and a postmodern autobiography, in which the notion of the coherent, individual self has been similarly called into question” (Reed-Danahay, 1997, p. 2). However, in her own chapter on leaving home in rural France, she rereads memoirs published by others as autoethnography rather than constructing an insider account of her own lived experiences.
Autoethnography Becomes Methodology
During the late 1990s, autoethnography begins to appear in its most recognizable form as a qualitative research methodology and its most significant figures and abiding interests are introduced. Foremost are Carolyn Ellis and Art Bochner, in the United States, and the congregations of scholars they have brought together over three decades, many of whom have become leaders in the field.2 In their first edited collection Composing ethnography: Alternative forms of qualitative writing (Ellis & Bochner, 1996), they gather chapters by Tillman-Healy, Rambo Ronai, Neumann, and others in a section entitled “Autoethnography.” Ellis and Bochner lay out the key features of the method in the introductory chapter, which also introduces stylistic elements that continue to be generative. This first chapter is written as a short story with a precisely detailed domestic setting, characters (Carolyn, Art, dogs, a telephone caller) and dialogue. Although literary aspects are not the focus of the chapter, it does indicate the merging of literary and sociological imaginations that are made explicit in later publications (Ellis, 2004). In this seminal chapter, the reader of the autoethnographic text is explicitly considered, and the potential impact of text on the reader is foregrounded.
Autoethnography is defined as a style of research that “strikes a chord in readers, it may change them, and the direction of change can’t be predicted. A lot depends on the reader’s subjectivity and emotions” (Bochner & Ellis, 1996, p. 23). Therefore the affective potential of the topic and of writing itself are foregrounded. The receptivity of the reader is seen to be crucial. In its effects on the reader, autoethnography might be disappointing, intimidating, unpleasant, dangerous, threatening, or mundane but autoethnographers demand involvement from their readers; “they want readers to feel and care and desire” (Bochner & Ellis, 1996, p. 24). Issues of power and subjugation are also emphasized as many of these personal narratives are “written by people who have suffered in silence for too long” (Bochner & Ellis, 1996, p. 24). Rather than producing alternative authoritative accounts, autoethnographies seek to show “contradictions, gaps and ambiguities of multiple and conflicting interpretations” (Bochner & Ellis, 1996, p. 25). They reveal that “ways of understanding the world are cultural and political productions tied to and influenced by the discourses of class, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation” (Bochner & Ellis, 1996, pp. 25–26). This sensitivity to discursive regimes of power, to the subtleties of context and to a critical orientation to injustice has continued to be central in subsequent autoethnographic research.
Thus the mandate for autoethnography, as laid out in this influential early account of the method, draws from discourses of postmodern fragmentation, an affective turn, aspects of critical pedagogy, and reader response. Tensions arise between these at times incommensurate perspectives in some of the work that comes later. Inventive textual strategies for pushing contradictions and ambiguities are evident in many chapters. Communications scholar Tillman-Healy fragments her chapter on bulimia into short vivid scenes at different times and places, and uses first and third person narration, poetic interludes, authoritative medicalized perspectives; she refuses resolution and instantiates bulimia and writing itself as a strategy for purging emotion (1996). The focus on composition and experimental textual strategies is a crucial intervention into the emerging field of autoethnography. Autoethnography is envisaged by the editors as a mode of “creative nonfiction,” that requires researchers “to take certain expressive liberties associated with the arts,” and at the same time to “feel the ethical pull of converting data into experiences readers can use” (Bochner & Ellis, 1996, p. 28). Therefore, the important tenets of autoethnography are established.
Even in this early work, emphasizing autoethnography as an alternative form of writing in the social sciences, it is apparent that at its most effective, each text must find its own form, its own voice, its own structure. There is no replicable genre or strategy for autoethnographic writing, though literary skills drawn from fiction and creative nonfiction are useful. Autoethnography is positioned as inventive, creative, and imaginative at the same time that it is documentary, in the sense that it describes social and cultural life as ethnographies have always done. Another important emphasis introduced in this period is the emphasis on the affective dialectic between writer and reader. Autoethnography that is “heartfelt” positions researchers as vulnerable subjects, whose “emotions, bodies, and spirits” are included in the texts they are writing, and thus are better able to encourage compassion and empathy in their readers (Ellis, 1999). An additional strategy that is introduced in this text is the personal story of coming to autoethnography as a method, as more conventional academic disciplines are found to be inadequate for representing emotionally complex and volatile topics.
Challenges to Autoethnography
Criticisms begin to appear from new directions in the late 1990s. Patricia Ticineto Clough develops an argument that the limits of autoethnography may not be adequately recognized and acknowledged by its advocates (1998, 2000a, 2000b). Partly informed by her psychoanalytical perspective and by feminist and poststructural theorists, she suggests that as a mode of experimental ethnography, autoethnography is naïve in its assumption of agency and of a self-consciously reflexive authorial subject. It emerges and finds its mode of address and topics of interest within trauma culture and an “auto-affection” shaped by technologies and popular culture (2000a). In its emphasis on the personal life experiences of the author, it is inadequately responsive to political and cultural complexity. She further warns of the anti-theory stance taken in some autoethnography as “staying close to theory . . . allows experimental writing to be a vehicle for thinking new sociological subjects” (2000b, p. 290). Further, she suggests that experimental ethnographic writing might enable “a new materiality of writing” where subject and object are inextricable and the “apparatus of observation or knowing” is of interest (Clough, 2000b, p. 282). Thus, our sense of agency and our readings of “the real” are always contingent, opportune, and discursively constituted.
The affective and subversive possibilities of writing otherwise are suggested as ways out of the melodramatic inclination of autoethnography. Experimental autoethnographic writing must play with “the direction and speeds of reflexivity, cutting into loops of images, adjusting the speed and direction of information off and on bodies and lives,” and it must include “cuts away from the life story in shifts to and from various genres, to and from various technologies, to and from various locations and temporalities” (Clough, 1998, p. 12). Clough’s early and important critiques of the trends in autoethnography have had limited impact. However, these points remain salient and have been further developed in her later work on the affective turn (2007), and her own writing towards this mode suggests some of the experimental textual possibilities (2010a, 2010b). This and subsequent critiques (e.g., Gannon, 2006; Jackson & Mazzei, 2008), emphasize the compositional qualities and potentials of autoethnographic writing to trouble simplistic accounts of experience.
Autoethnographic Writing: Evoking Experience
Autoethnography can be seen to arrive as an authoritative research methodology for the social sciences in the second edition of the influential Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research, edited by Denzin and Lincoln, which incorporated the seminal chapter on autoethnography by Ellis and Bochner (2000), which is by far the most cited resource on autoethnography. New chapters by different authors in subsequent editions (2005, 2011, 2017) indicate shifts and varying emphases over time through the rapid expansion and extension of autoethnography across multiple fields, including education. As these are the most cited, most circulated, and most authoritative accounts of autoethnography, and as it is difficult to abstract autoethnography from the particular styles of writing that it has inaugurated, close readings of the series of chapters and their modes of address in the Handbook are given in the following sections.
The first handbook published in 1994 made no mention of autoethnography, but the inclusion of the chapter by Ellis and Bochner in the second edition identified autoethnography as a legitimate research method that emerged from what Denzin and Lincoln call the fifth moment of qualitative inquiry—the “postmodern moment of experimental ethnographic writing” (2000a, p. 17). This moment had been precipitated by the “triple crisis of representation, legitimation and praxis” (2000a, p. 17) that undermined assumptions that qualitative researchers merely capture and represent lived experience in the texts they write and that destabilize positivist aspirations for validity, generalizability, and reliability. Ellis and Bochner’s inaugurating chapter, “Autoethnography, personal narrative, reflexivity: Researcher as subject” (2000), abandons any pretense to objectivity in design, method, and voice. The chapter demonstrates how the researcher can be instantiated in the text, as the subject of inquiry as well as its author. The writing strategies adopted moved beyond naïve reflexivity towards active and imaginative recreation of experience. Extending the writing style evident in earlier publications, it draws on literary and narrative techniques positioning the authors as characters in a short story about extending research methods, with elaborated settings, dialogue, plot structures, and a story arc that pivots on the experiences of a new graduate student, Sylvia, who is considering whether she can write about her own experience and in her own voice in her dissertation on breast cancer. The first person narrator, Carolyn, explains the principles of autoethnography within the dialogue with Sylvia. For example, in part of their exchange, Sylvia asks, “So if I understand you correctly, the goal is to use your life experience to generalize to a larger group or culture,” and Carolyn responds, “Yes but that’s not all. The goal is also to enter and document the moment-to-moment, concrete details of a life” (2000, p. 737). In its detailed attention to setting—a professor’s office littered with papers—and to character—including the tone of voice, emotion, outfits, gestures, and vibrant conversations that are reported as though they are occurring in real time, the chapter reinforces how autoethnography values and deploys a literary, aesthetic, and affective mode of writing to construct “moment-to-moment” and “concrete” scenes from the world.
Conventional academic prose replete with references to other scholarship and citations appears in three discrete sections inside the chapter, but these are corralled within the short story and are clearly marked as “other” in italics. The first instance is a written text that the character Art reads aloud to the character Carolyn over the telephone, the second is an italicized section with the subheading “What is autoethnography?,” described as a draft section of the Handbook chapter, which the character Carolyn reads back to herself, and the third italicized section with the subheading “Why personal narrative matters” is the text of a lecture delivered by the character Art in an Interdisciplinary Colloquium series. These are explicitly labeled as “conventional social science prose” (2000, p. 734) within the autoethnographic text, and their juxtaposition with the lively autoethnographic story reinforces the turgid style and limits of such prose. This influential chapter indicates the predominant interest of Ellis and Bochner at the time in writing itself and the difficulty and pleasures of writing in this mode: “Most social scientists don’t write well enough to carry it off. Or they are not sufficiently introspective about their feelings or motives, or the contradictions they experience” (2000, p. 738). Authenticity, honesty, and skill are valued.
The literary turn signaled in the Handbook chapter is explicitly developed in Ellis’s heavily cited book The Autoethnographic I: A methodological novel about autoethnography (2004) and later Revision: Autoethnographic reflections on life and work (2009), as well as in further collaborations between Ellis and Bochner.3
Autoethnographic Writing: Turning to Politics and Performance
In the third edition of the Sage Handbook, a different emphasis is introduced that turns autoethnography much more overtly towards public and public domains. In her chapter “Autoethnography: Making the personal political” Stacy Holman Jones demands that autoethnography be taken up as a “radical democratic politics” (2005, p. 765). Drawing on all the arts of her communications discipline, Holman Jones makes the chapter a call to action, and demands more of autoethnography than emotional release. The chapter opens in the second person with a direct address to the reader and a declamatory rhetorical style:
This chapter is meant for more than one voice, for more than personal release and discovery, and for more than the pleasures of the text. It is not a text alone. This chapter is meant for public display. It is not meant to be left alone. This chapter is an ensemble piece. It asks that you read it with other texts, in other contexts, and with others. It asks for a performance, one in which we might discover that our autoethnographic texts are not alone. It is a performance that asks how our personal accounts count (2005, p. 764).
The chapter moves through particular scenes of encounters with autoethnographic texts in classes and in a variety of other contexts. It incorporates the body and feelings of the author in the act of writing, and preparing to write, balancing books on her lap, weighing up alternative definitions and allowing them to collide with each other in awkward ways, and refusing to smooth these out. The story of the author in this chapter is about her encountering autoethnography and being moved by it, moved beyond just feeling towards action. Autoethnography is claimed as a mode of performance ethnography, and specifically of performative writing, that is inevitably partial, fragmented, and situated. It is “an intimate provocation, a critical ekphrasis” that must both incorporate theory and praxis (Holman Jones, 2005, p. 781). Autoethnographers are likened to solo performers who deploy “the duplicity of artistry and journalism, expert testimony and witnessing” to “create, enact, and incite” performances full of possibilities (2005, p. 782).
Although the chapter includes many precisely situated scenes in a life and narrates the author’s autoethnographic academic biography, the arc in this chapter does not pivot on a personal narrative but on a carefully wrought intellectual and political argument, that autoethnography is necessarily oriented towards the world and committed to changing it. Holman Jones closes the chapter with a series of direct provocations to the reader, that they: “Recognise the power of the in-between” where radical possibilities might reside, “Stage impossible encounters” that incite debates and dialogue, “Contextualise giving testimony and witnessing” by situating the personal narrative within broader social contexts, “Create disturbances” through the texts we write and present, “Make texts of an explicit nature” that also ask how and to what ends they move readers (2005, p. 784). Although Holman Jones’s chapter has been cited less often than the inaugural Handbook chapter, her close attention to the performativity of language and its ethical and political effects, as well as to different ways of thinking and staging authoethnography beyond the page, signal important new directions for autoethnography. Holman Jones’s influence has continued to grow through many subsequent publications, including her coeditorship with Carolyn Ellis and Tony Adams, of the first Handbook of Autethnography, from Left Coast Press (2013), which brings together work by many well-known and emerging authors in this field. Since her move to Australia in 2015, she has been influential in that hemisphere by inaugurating and convening, with Anne Harris, a new series of conferences in Melbourne on the arts of Critical Autoethnography emphasizing visual methods, music, sound and spoken word, dance, and other embodied approaches to autoethnography.
The performative turn in autoethnography has further deepened in subsequent editions of the Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research as communications scholar and performer Tami Spry has authored autoethnography chapters for the fourth (2011) and fifth editions (2016). Her chapter, entitled “Performative autoethnography: Critical embodiments and possibilities” (2011a) centers texts in and between bodies in the “rupture and rapture of performance” that exceeds the constraints of writing (2011a, p. 497). Autoethnography is claimed as a potentially decolonizing methodology where powerful metaphors are put to work—“fragmentation, dismemberment, delivery of body/story” to interrupt “personal/political and local/global issues of loss toward a performative pedagogy of hope and possibility” (2011a, p. 497). Spry insists on the body and weaves her own story of encountering this method as a means of performing “the impossible, moving in and out of trauma with words and blood and bones” through the chapter as autoethnography is claimed for “somatic connection” with self and others (2011a, p. 498), and moving between loss and healing. Spry evokes losses across intensely personal and global scales including the September 11 attacks, home foreclosures, media hate mongers, violent militia, war, the No Child Left Behind Act, the politics of ignorance, and bullying that “operates from a compassionate and lionhearted will to usurp and resist injustice” (2011a, p. 499). She evokes numerous examples of autoethnography as a subaltern and indigenous contestation and remaking of history that can “break the colonizing and encrypted code of what counts as knowledge redefining silence as a form of agency and positioning local knowledge as the heart of epistemology and ontology” (2011a, p. 500). Autoethnography begins, she insists, with “a body, in a place, and in a time” (2011a, p. 500). She describes her own process as “I let myself fall apart. I let myself see the pieces. I let myself fall into the presence of absence” (2011a, p. 504) and developing the “performative-I disposition” that enables the text to enact disruption, dislocation, fragmentation, and absence as a form of “critical agency” that is intensely aware that it is inherently compromised and “never enough, never complete, never finished” (2011a, p. 505). Thus, autoethnography means that the “the body is the actor, agent and text at once” and meaning emerges “through the negotiation of corporeal bodies in space and time” (2011a, p. 507). Autoethnography, as written text and as moral imperative, is reliant on embodied and aesthetic craft and we must “write more about writing,” she argues, recognizing our copresence with others in the “vulnerable and liminal inbetweeness of self/other/context” (2011a, p. 507). She closes her chapter with references to feminist poets and filmmakers and to “the passionate liminality, the inchoate corporeality, the continual redoubling where you and I are collaboratively present and singularly absent on the page” (2011a, p. 509). Spry has further elaborated her approach to autoethnography as performance in her book Body paper stage: Writing and performing auotethnography (2011b) and in her new chapter for the forthcoming fifth edition of the Handbook. Importantly, Spry’s chapter demonstrates the potential of autoethnography to be bold, artful, ethical, idiosyncratic, and urgent in its rhetorical style. Theoretical and poetic concepts, metaphors, personal accounts, and global and national issues of import are all woven through the chapter. Every word and phrase is precise and powerful. The chapter does not provide guidelines as to how to proceed but it compels autoethnographers to be courageous and inventive in finding their way toward an autoethnography that is a personal and political intervention in the world. In the fifth edition, she describes how autoethnography focused on “the other” as much as on the self, can be part of a “bid for utopia.”
As this article suggests, subsequent editions of the Handbook of Qualitative Research, edited by Denzin and Lincoln, have provided the main conduit through which autoethnography has travelled widely and claimed methodological space. Other major publication sites for experiments in autoethnography are the journals edited by Denzin—Qualitative Inquiry, Cultural Studies↔Critical Methodologies, and the newer International Review of Qualitative Research—which have published the greatest numbers of papers extending and contesting the method, including those arguing from poststructural perspectives for deconstructive and experimental approaches to voice, experience, textuality, and the autoethnographic “I” (e.g., Gannon, 2006; Jackson & Mazzei, 2008). Apart from these published accounts, the annual International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry (University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana) has created a collegial space for autoethnography to flourish and develop and now features a vigorous autoethnography special interest group. However, although this proliferation of works pushing at the edges of convention is very strong in autoethnographic research, there are also more conventional approaches, which are outlined in the following sections.
Autoethnography as Social Science
Several influential publications have endeavored to systematize autoethnography as a valid and recognizable social science method. One of the most widely cited of these is Leon Anderson’s article “Analytic Autoethnography” (2006), which contests postmodern inclinations that he equates with “evocative autoethnography.” He aims to reclaim autoethnography within an ethnographic tradition, and to delineate the key features of what he calls the subgenre of the “analytic autoethnographic paradigm” (2006, p. 374). Anderson produces an alternative genealogy through Chicago School ethnography, and he identifies five key features or prerequisites for analytic autoethnography. Firstly, the researcher must be a full member of the research setting, or in other words, must have “complete member researcher status” (2006, pp. 378–379), though this does not preclude partiality and a range of other methodological complications. Analytic autoethnography requires “analytic reflexivity” from the researcher, requiring the researcher to recognize and critically examine how they are implicated in the scene of research and the reciprocity this entails (2006, p. 383). Thirdly, analytic ethnography positions the researcher visibly within the text, for example when the author includes their own feelings and experiences in the story, producing “analytic insights through recounting their own experiences and thoughts as well as those of others” (2006, p. 384). The fourth dimension of analytic autoethnography is seen as a counter to the risk of “self-absorption,” as it is a requirement for “dialogue with informants beyond the self” (2006, p. 385). Finally, he argues for autoethnography that is committed to the analytic agenda of the social sciences and its commitment “to use empirical data to gain insight into some broader set of social phenomena than those provided by the data themselves” (2006, p. 387). At the time of publication, when autoethnography was being claimed as a rupture with conventional social science, Anderson endeavors to rein in the excesses and indulgences of evocative autoethnography and argue for its incorporation within more familiar ethnographic understandings.
Another influential text is Heewon Chang’s book Autoethnography as method (2008), which also anchors autoethnography in conventional qualitative social science. It is approached as one of many methodological choices and emphasizes collecting data and turning data into autoethnography. It is seen as a particular variation of ethnography with particular affordances, for example as an “instructional tool to help not only social scientists but also practitioners . . . gain profound understanding of self and others and function more effectively with others from diverse cultural backgrounds” (2008, p. 13). Three sets of data collection strategies are described, each producing different types of data: personal memories, self-observation, and external data. As in conventional methodological approaches, procedures for data management, labeling, and reduction are elaborated. As this is a textbook, classroom-ready autoethnographic exercises are embedded throughout the chapters and in the appendices, but writing itself is only addressed directly in the final chapter. This presents a brief typology of four “styles,” each of which is seen to have particular risks. “Descriptive-realistic” writing aims for objectivity via “accurate depictions of places, people, experiences and events” (2008, p. 143); “confessional-emotive writing” can expose “confusions, problems and dilemmas in life” but does “not always enjoy favorable reviews” (2008, p. 145), “analytical-interpretive writing” is described through conventional qualitative processes that aim to balance description, analysis, and interpretation (2008, p. 147), while finally “imaginative-creative writing” is “the boldest departure from traditional academic writing” and risks “blurring genres of fiction and nonfiction, not engaging sufficient cultural analysis and interpretation, and dismissing academic or scientific methods” (2008, p. 148). Readers are advised to develop their own style from those available, even mixing and matching in order to best fit “research purpose and writing strengths” (p. 149). Overall, in this book the performative, affective, and aesthetic qualities of writing that have been so crucial to many autoethnographers are not of particular interest.
Other valuable resources to guide aspiring autoethnographers have emerged from authors associated with the literary and performative turns discussed in this chapter. The recent Evocative autoethnography: Writing lives and telling stories by Bochner and Ellis moves into an overtly instructional mode in order to provide “a straightforward and systematic treatment of the origins, goals, concepts, genres, methods, aesthetics, ethic and truth conditions of evocative ethnography” for classroom use (2016, p. 10). The book also maintains the commitment that its authors have consistently demonstrated to a narrative mode, and it eschews a disembodied academic voice. The text tells the story, with exemplars and handouts, of a quasifictitious workshop, situated in a concrete place and time—the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry. It is a composite of the many workshops they have run together at numerous locations, the cast of characters includes Art and Carolyn and the workshop participants and the narrative unfolds through dialogue. Everyday language is preferred and positioned in opposition to obscure, theoretical, and often “deplorable” writing in much social science (2016, p. 79).4 In contrast, autoethnographers “focus attention on people . . . connect with readers . . . [and] talk the way most human beings talk” (2016, p. 79). Whilst adopting artful literary approaches and producing layered accounts of experience, this arguably dominant strand of authoethnography remains deeply committed to a realist account of the world.
The multivoiced coauthored text, Autoethnography by Adams, Holman Jones, and Ellis (2014), also directed towards classrooms, identifies “core ideals and best practices” for auothnography (2014, p. 113). The craft of writing is foregrounded and the text emphasizes vulnerability as a key trope of autoethnographic writing. Each author in turn addresses questions of design and paradigm and of doing, representing, and evaluating autoethnography. This introductory text aims to guide autoethnographers towards appropriate performance, and it also introduces experimental strategies such as “spinning” and “collaging” text fragments (2014, p. 74).
Authoethnography in Education
In education, as in other fields, autoethnography has been of increasing interest to doctoral students and faculty. The traditions and resources that have been explored in this article have been important to many education scholars. However autoethnographic accounts in the field of education do not tend to push the edges of experimentation with textuality. Some dissertation authors struggle to reconcile autoethnography with conventional calls for authenticity, validity, accuracy, and dependability, although these may be incommensurate with aspects of the autoethnographic project. Often, autoethnography is a component of a larger study, so that the author’s account sits alongside case studies of other research participants who share similar characteristics, such as Hayler’s account of teacher educators in England (2011). Alternatively, researchers such as Starr (2010) argue for the potential of autoethnography, informed by a Freirean praxis of conscientization, as a “valuable tool in examining the complex, diverse, and sometimes messy world of education” (2010, p. 2). Starr argues that autoethnography entails a process of “systematic sociological introspection” (2010, p. 3). She identifies essential criteria for authenticity, including fairness, ontological authenticity, educative authenticity, and catalytic authenticity. Autoethnography has methodological rigor and can inform “more reflective, culturally relevant pedagogy” (2010, p. 6).
The stakes are high for establishing autoethnography as a credible method for educational research in conservative times, for example with Hughes, Pennington, and Makris (2012) carefully mapping examples of educational autoethnography across the American Educational Research Association’s standards for empirical social science. However, the nature of the standards force attention to the most conventional aspects and examples of autoethnography, for example, those that establish their authority through adaptations of empirical methods, such as “interviews, field notes, observations, journals, surveys, legal documents, recordings, audiovisual media, and web 2.0 correspondence” that claimed to advance “sound logic and credible designs, data and analyses” (2012, p. 214). Classifications and typologies are valued, theory is barely mentioned, and authors are required to give “specific, unambiguous descriptions of their research design, data collection and analysis techniques” (2012, p. 214). Some of the lauded examples endeavor to incorporate “descriptive statistics” and to detail “coding processes” and factors such as “intercoder reliability” (2012, p. 214). A potential rubric for evaluating autoethnographic research papers is presented for the use of peer reviewers in high-status educational journals. The arguments of their case for autoethnography, unsurprisingly given their purpose to bring autoethnography into the fold, rely on establishing similarities with authorized methods, rather than making a case for the radical and necessary difference that autoethnography might bring to educational research. However, since the publication of this paper, the number of autoethnographic papers published in the major educational journals5 that they name in the opening of their article (apart from Qualitative Inquiry) has not increased.
Where autoethnography is published in mainstream U.S. educational journals, it is particularly by authors from historically marginalized communities (Chávez, 2015) or focusing on race (Pennington & Prater, 2014). Autoethnography appears sporadically in educational journals elsewhere (Bossle, Neto, & Molina, 2014; Legge, 2014, Mawhinney & Petchauer, 2013; McClellan, 2012; Reta, 2010). The conservative inclinations of mainstream educational research organizations seems also to be reflected in the journals owned by the British Educational Research Association and Australian Educational Research Association, which have not published educational autoethnography6. It seems likely that educational researchers who adopt an autoethnographic turn and who intend to take up its radical challenges to research as usual will be best served by looking beyond their discipline to the interdisciplinary spaces, journals, and edited collections mentioned in this article where experimental texts are most likely to be found.
Directions in Autoethnography
The emergence of new approaches to authoethnography can be mapped across several recent publications. Experiences of otherness are the explicit focus of recent books and edited collections. They demonstrate how autoethnography might be emboldened, politicized, and shaken out of its habits. Experimental modes of writing are important and particular to each project. Extending on her newest Handbook chapter in the book, Autoethnography and the Other: Unsettling Power Through Utopian Performatives, Spry suggests that “autoethnography is not about the self at all; perhaps it is instead about a willful embodiment of ‘we’” (2016, p. 15). This text continues the trajectory of her Handbook chapters and earlier book Body paper stage: Writing and performing autoethnography (2011), drawing on traditions of jazz composition and theatre towards a
performance ethos, an empathic epistemology of critical reflection upon racial privilege and accountability . . . where issues of power and privilege are rewritten and rescored with others [in] a new old song, an autoethnographic libretto with a minor chord rewriting a major one (2016, p. 17).
The motif of music and incorporation of jazz syncopation, scripts, monologues, and other experimental forms reinforce the textual versatility of autoethnography and its underpinning by aesthetic and literary sensibilities. It also suggests that autoethnographic form may be unique to each author’s particular lived experience and influences. In this text, through notions such as the “in/appropriated other” and the “unsettled other,” Spry reexamines multiple scenes, texts, and performances, such as her field notes from her earlier work in Chile, for moments of “epistemic discomfort” (2016, p. 30) and “ethical trouble” (2016, p. 46). Thus, she works towards a utopian and relational notion of hope as labor and commitment to sociopolitical reform.
Experiences of otherness and the circulation of power in pedagogical and cultural contexts are the focus of Retelling our stories: Critical autoethnographic narratives (Tilley-Lubbs & Calva, 2016). This collection of stories and poems from academics and graduate students in the United States and Mexico began when the editors met at the ICQI workshops and collaborated to teach an online course between the two locations. The chapters draw heavily on the North American traditions described in this article, and they move beyond these to work critical pedagogies through an autoethnographic mode. Rather than smoothing over differences in order to tell a story of a successful international partnership, the cross-border collaboration also draws attention to the troubles of unanticipated paradigm differences, different theoretical genealogies, inequities of access and resourcing, and a range of incommensurabilities across contexts. Authors from Mexico, the United States, Trinidad, China, and Honduras interrogate experiences of violence, dislocation, subjection, exclusion, marginalization, migration, race, and class in texts that circle around critical questions of multiculturalism and the other. Another interesting text which is explicit in its decolonizing intent is the contribution to the Handbook of Autoethnography by Tuck and Ree (2013). They interrogate American anxieties and settler colonialism by constructing an alphabetical “glossary of haunting.” They experiment with an elusive “composite I” in order to “use the bothness of my voice to misdirect those who intend to study or surveil me” (2013, p. 644). They draw in myths, artworks, films, poetry, and cultural texts to displace the “I” of autoethnography and subvert the authority of naïve experience, whilst focusing on the spectral effects of violence and injustice.
Indigenous autoethnographies are an important emerging and international direction for autoethnography as a decolonizing methodology. Houston (2007) argues for a new way of thinking about autoethnography as a valid research method. She argues that for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers in Australia, an Indigenous autoethnography is a more “legitimate and respectful means of acquiring and formulating knowledge” because it combines storytelling traditions with academic practices (2007, p. 45). McKenna and Woods (2012) demonstrate the storytelling imperative through a methodology of “yarning” or talking back and forth across differences, between a non-Indigenous and Indigenous researcher. They argue for an “artful autoethnography” that is connected to ritual and that promotes connectedness and liberation through the aesthetic and arts practice, co-construction, and processual knowledge-making, with the community rather than apart from it (2012, p. 84). Precise situating of the self is usual in this work, as Woods describes herself as a Kuku-Yalanji and Kuku-Djungan woman from Queensland, while McKenna names himself as an Anglo-Australian from Tasmania. In Canada, Cree scholar Onowa McIvor (2010) blends autoethnography with Indigenous research paradigms, exploring spirituality, truth-telling, integrity, and issues of exposure. He argues that neutrality and objectivity are not appropriate or credible aims for Indigenous research (2010, p. 139) and cites a diverse range of Indigenous scholars who have drawn upon autoethnography in creative and particular ways, for example drawing on the motif of the canoe (Cole, 2002) or theorizing a “red pedagogy” (Grande, 2008). As a decolonizing method, such research might be thought of as ceremony, he suggests, and he describes how he smudges and prays to build his spiritual and emotional strength for the work (2010, p. 140). In New Zealand, Māori scholar Paul Whitinui challenges Indigenous researchers to take up autoethnography as a “native method of inquiry” in order to rediscover their own voices as “culturally liberating human-beings” (2014, p. 456). Whitinui’s innovative writing approach includes much use of Māori language and concepts throughout the paper. He begins his paper with a bilingual Māori/English formal greeting ritual chant, or Mihimihi, and concludes with a traditional Māori saying, or Ka Mutu Whakataukī. He unpacks the notion of layered identities that is of so much interest to autoethnographers through the multidimensional Māori concept of whānau (family), and argues that researchers must “understand how others are affected” and “create appropriate spaces, approaches and methods for others’ voices to be heard” (2014, 458). He develops a model for a “culturally explicit and informed” autoethnography with the capacity to nourish and replenish individuals and communities (2014, p. 480). This work by Indigenous scholars who are adapting autoethnography for their own purposes has an overtly political agenda and is unapologetic in its commitment to ethical and communal outcomes.
Although multiple histories might be told of its emergence and influence, and the account that has been given in this article is only one of these, autoethnography has developed as a challenge both to conventional ethnographic accounts of social and cultural life and to naïve realist tales that instantiate an unproblematic “I” who claims to know the world and experience in any straightforward ways. This article is limited to publications in English that are accessible to the author and to a broad readership. This precludes many likely autoethnographic texts that are published in other languages or that are contained in dissertations that have not yet been published. It also omits multimodal autoethnographies, which may provide exciting opportunities for experimentation in the future. Further, it restricts itself to texts that are explicitly described as autoethnography in the social sciences and education. There are many other research traditions that advocate or incorporate writing the self, including much feminist writing, that do not explicitly claim this method as a description. Whether or not a researcher chooses to justify the inclusion of their own stories and experiences into a text under the banner depends on their intended audience, the effects they are hoping to provoke, the writing strategies they adopt, the truth claims they want to make or to trouble, and the disciplinary and publication context into which their work is entering.
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(1.) Google Scholar’s search by decade reveals usage patterns where autoethnography/auto-ethnography appears in titles of books, book chapters, theses, and journal articles: 1970–1979—3 uses of the term; 1980–1989—0 uses of the term in titles, but 29 uses in full text searches; 1990–1999—16 uses in titles, and 754 in full text searches; 2000–2009—251 uses in titles and 8,270 in full text; 2010–2016 (Dec)—995 uses in titles and 15,900 in full text.
(2.) Almost 4,000 citations via Google Scholar at the time of writing.
(3.) Notably the book series “Ethnographic Alternatives” that they initiated with AltaMira Press and the “Writing Lives” series with Left Coast Press (now Routledge) have been important routes for dissemination of book-length experimental autoethnographies (e.g., Alexander, 2006; Brady, 2003; Holman Jones, 2007; Pelias, 2004).
(4.) Also see Ellis 2009b for response to critics and discussion of theory.
(5.) The journals they name are Harvard Educational Review, Anthropology and Education Quarterly, Teaching and Teacher Education, Qualitative Inquiry, Urban Review, Educational Studies, Journal of Latinos and Education, and Race, Ethnicity, and Education.
(6.) British Educational Research Journal and Australian Journal of Education.