Autoethnography is a research method that combines ethnography and autobiography. It involves studying oneself by using research methods and theory to reflect on personal narratives.
|Autobiography||The development of one’s own narrative about their life, identity, past, and present.||– Journalling about oneself.|
– Writing down memories and personal reactions to those memories.
– Developing a coherent narrative about identity and personal history.
|Ethnography||A research method where people are embedded in a culture, society, or group. Through prolonged exposure, the researcher develops deep and nuanced understandings.||– Journaling about the culture or society in which the researcher is embedded.|
– Making recordings, field notes, and vignettes about what is observed.
The combination of ethnography and autobiography means the researcher writes field notes, reflective notes, biographies, and reflections on one’s self over a period of time.
Then, the researcher applies research theories and methods – such as thematic analysis, the use of critical theory, poststructural theory, discourse analysis, and so on – to reflect upon one’s own experiences.
The researcher can then develop theories, analyses, hypotheses, and reflections that shed light on the human experience.
Autoethnographic research can help elucidate information and knowledge about the human experience through thick description of a person’s lived experiences.
After data collection (through field notes and autobiography), the researcher applies theory to explore how the personal narrative fits within the broader social, cultural, political, and historical context.
Some simple definitions include:
- “Autoethnography entails the investigation of the researcher’s own experience by means of analysis of a personal narrative or reflection” (Mentz et al., 2010)
- “Autoethnography places the self – the researcher – at the centre of research about himself/herself in a social context” (Cohen et al., 2018)
With these definitions, we can look at the premises of ethnography proposed by Adams, Ellis, and Jones (2017):
- Provide alternatives to taken-for-granted cultural scripts: Autoethnography, especially from critical theorists, feminists, and queer theorists, attempts to disrupt cultural scripts made by cultural outsiders about them.
- Articulate insider knowledge of cultural experience: The researcher/participant is a cultural insider in a way that outsider ethnographers cannot be, allowing for deeper analysis.
- Show how researchers are implicated by their conclusions: The approach attempts to undermine the assumptions that researchers can be separated and arm’s length from their data.
- Describe experiences that cannot be captured through traditional research: By digging deep into the emotional life of the researcher/participant, the research can reveal data that is extremely difficult to access through other qualitative methods like interviews or observation.
- Create texts that are accessible to larger audiences: The descriptive style of autoethnography makes it a vastly different reading experience to traditional academic research, allowing the research to be readable by a wider range of people.
Subjectivity in Autoethnography
Autoethnography often struggles to be accepted as a viable research methodology due to its extreme embrace of subjectivity.
Traditionally, researchers were taught to attempt to achieve objectivity and an arm’s-length stance from the research subject.
However, the second half of the 20th Century saw a change in the ways subjectivity was seen by several research traditions in the humanities and social sciences. These included the postmodernists, poststructuralists, and critical theorists.
Among these researchers, researcher subjectivity was increasingly seen as inevitable. All research – no matter how ostensibly objective – was seen as filtered through the lens of human bias.
As a result, subjectivity came to be acknowledged rather than minimized.
Autoethnography is in a way a natural extension of this rejection of objectivity. Researchers came to turn inward and explore their own biases, approaches, and mindsets. It was only a matter of time before they came to study themselves.
Autoethnography Strengths and Weaknesses
Autoethnography is certainly a controversial research method. Below are some arguments for and against it:
|Strengths of Autoethnography||Weaknesses of Autoethnography|
|Rich Insights: Autoethnography provides deep, personal insights into cultural experiences (Pretorius & Cutri, 2019). This allows for understands that go well beyond surface-level analysis that is obtained from other qualitative research methods.||Hyper-Subjectivity: Many scholars dismiss autoethnography as a research methodology that is so subjective that the research becomes simple opinion, lacking the requisite reliability and validity for an academic study.|
|Emotional Engagement: Unlike many other research methods, autoethnography accepts and leans into emotional storytelling, creating an emotional connection to the readers, which can help to open the reader’s mind to new ideas.||Lack of Generalizability: Autoethnography focuses on one person. It is, essentially, a personal case study. As with all case study research, it’s non-generalizable to other people or contexts (Edwards, 2011).|
|Reflexivity: The autoethnographer is encouraged to reflect on their own biases and the flaws in their research and perspectives. This is seen by autoethnographers as more authentic and honest than research that attempts to minimize subjectivity (Edwards, 2011).||Validation and Reliability: The personal nature of autoethnography means that the researcher’s credibility and the study’s validity are undermined. As a result, many academic journals do not accept autoethnography as legitimate scholarly research (Pretorius & Cutri, 2019).|
|Access to Hidden Experiences: One of the greatest advantages of autoethnography is that it can uncover hidden, personal experiences that are not typically accessible to researchers. It achieves perhaps the most depth out of any type of qualitative research.||Ethical Concerns: Autoethnographic research can often reveal extremely sensitive or private information. While the consent of the researchers themselves is self-evident, consent of the people that the autoethnographer is speaking about needs to be considered.|
1. Critical Theory in Prestigious Academic Environments (Sadi & Ergas, 2022)
This study explores the experiences of the researcher-participant as they navigate studying critical theory during their time in graduate school.
The autoethnographer is a Middle-Eastern scholar whose reflections demonstrate how critical theory, despite its goal to empower people from marginalized backgrounds, can have the opposite effect in real life. The researcher went through experiences where they felt marginalized and alone.
As a result, the author became disillusioned with critical theory as a way to break down injustices. They felt academic writing was itself an exclusionary practice.
However, the author suggests that by using their critical thinking and selecting useful concepts from critical theory (while also questioning some of its assumptions), critical theory may have some redeeming qualities.
Sadi, M. N., & Ergas, O. (2022). Critical theory in prestigious academic environments: a first-generation student’s chronicle. Critical Studies in Education, 1-16. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/17508487.2022.2071958
2. A day in the life of an NHS Nurse (Osben, 2019)
This study presents a vignette about a day in the life of an NHS nurse (who, of course, is also the researcher), then reflects upon the positionality of the researcher in the workplace.
The author’s critical analysis of their own vignette aims to apply academic concepts to analyze their own situation.
The academic research that is used to analyze the vignette allows the researcher to exercise reflexivity, with the researcher concluding: “Scrutinising my practice and situating it within a wider contextual backdrop has compelled me to significantly increase my level of scrutiny into the driving forces that influence my practice.”
Osben, J. (2019). A day in the life of a NHS nurse in 21st Century Britain: An auto-ethnography. The Journal of Autoethnography for Health & Social Care. 1(1). doi: https://autoethnography.co.uk/contents/
3. Finding My Front Porch (Whitworth, 2023)
This study uses a personal essay and personal poetry to demonstrate how regional identity is an overlooked aspect of intersectionality.
The study focuses on the intersections of queer identity and Southern identity in the USA.
By mixing-in thick descriptions of personal experiences and scholarly analysis, the study provides case study evidence for the critical theory idea of intesectionality.
Whereas intersectionality tends to explore identity factors like race, gender, sexuality, and social class, this study argues that regional identities need to be similarly considered as fundamental aspects of the development of a “messy” intersectional sense of self.
Whitworth, C. (2023). Finding My Front Porch: An Autoethnography of Queer Southern Intersections. Journal of Autoethnography, 4(1): 102–123. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/joae.2023.4.1.102
4. Torpified by Gaming (Kout, 2023)
In this text, the author reflects on their own use of video games as a learning experience. They apply the concept of torpification to explain three epiphanies they experienced.
The author argues that his autoethnographic study unveils new ways of understanding the value of video gaming for learning.
The author reflects on how game-based learning tends to be simple digitization of multiple-choice questions. However, his own experiences of gaming demonstrate how he has been awed morally and epistemologically by gaming.
He reveals several epiphanies he experiences, including that of questioning his own spirituality while reflecting on his gaming experiences.
Kout, Y. (2023). Torpified by Gaming: Three Ways Video Games Electrified Me into Consciousness. Journal of Autoethnography, 4(1), 139-155. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/joae.2023.4.1.139
5. Finding our Muchness (Thiel, 2016)
Thiel (2016) explores her experiences as a working-class woman in the working-class space of academia. Her ethnography employs the concept of “muchness”, loosely transcribed to a sense of an authentic self.
The study uses photography, personal reflection, storytelling, and quotes from movies that she finds meaningful to reflect on her situatedness in higher education. She finds herself stuck between trying to stay true to her working-class self while fitting into a middle-class institution.
The study’s value is in verbalizing the ways universities attempt to push out working-class values and identities to make more space for middle-class values. Through the reflection and application of research into class bias to analyze her own reflections, the author may move readers to be more inclusive of working-class identities in the halls of universities.
Thiel, J. J. (2016). Working-class women in academic spaces: Finding our muchness. Gender and Education, 28(5), 662-673. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/09540253.2015.1091918
6. Why is this so Hard? (Zavattaro, 2020)
This study explores the relationships between coaches and athletes through an autoethnography approach. The sport in the study was rowing.
Data collection methods for this study included a training diary, emails, and vignettes about personal memories of a six-month interaction between coach and rower.
The study focuses on conflict between the coach and the athlete and reflects on the miscommunication that occurs around what is perceived to be good coaching and teaching.
The authors conclude by highlighting that recognising the presence of a power imbalance during coaching, highlighting that autoethnography can help both the coach and athlete work through this power imbalance to achieve more effective communication.
Zavattaro, S. M. (2021). Why Is This So Hard?: An Autoethnography of Qualitative Interviewing. Public Performance & Management Review, 44(5), 1052-1074. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/15309576.2020.1734035
7. The Poetics of Tourist Experience (Noy, 2007)
Reflecting on a poem he wrote in 1994, Noy (2007) conducts an autoethnography of his experiences on a family trip to Mexico.
The purpose of the study is to shed light on the importance of deep, thick analysis for explaining the emotions, contradictions, and human experiences of travel.
The author explains how autoethnographic research helps to add more depth of understanding to the meanings behind tourism than the dominant paradigm of positivist tourism research can achieve.
Noy, C. (2008). The poetics of tourist experience: An autoethnography of a family trip to Eilat1. Journal of Tourism and Cultural Change, 5(3), 141-157. doi: https://doi.org/10.2167/jtcc085.0
8. An autoethnography of a (reluctant) teacher leader (Knapp, 2017)
This study involves a year-long data collection period where a teacher-leader kept notes on their experiences and feelings of moving into a leadership position in a school.
The value of this study is in its rich description of the development of a leadership identity, demonstrating the role of trial-and-error in coming to find an effective leadership identity.
Reading this study demonstrated the idea from Adams, Ellis, and Jones (2017) that autoethnography makes research highly-accessible to a non-academic audience. The story that the piece leads the reader through helps to compellingly demonstrate the value of the ‘lead by example’ identity that the author found was effective in her life.
Knapp, M. C. (2017). An autoethnography of a (reluctant) teacher leader. The Journal of Mathematical Behavior, 46, 251-266. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jmathb.2017.02.004
9. I can see you (Vasconcelos, 2011)
This study, whose complete title is “I Can See You”: An Autoethnography of My Teacher-Student Self, demonstrates the value of autoethnography in helping to create a reflective practitioner identity.
The author explores their narratives of their experiences becoming a proficient teacher. But what is most elucidating is that autoethnography is extremely useful for personal self-reflection and coming to know oneself more effectively.
Like action research, this study demonstrates personal value in autoethnography for improving practice, but leaves open the question of whether the study held much value for progressing academic knowledge.
de Souza Vasconcelos, E. F. (2011). ” I can see you”: an autoethnography of my teacher-student self. The Qualitative Report, 16(2), 415.
10. Writing Professor as Adult Learner (Henning, 2012)
This autoethnography explores personal stories and reflections of a professor who goes through an online learning process.
The value I find in this study is that it is strongly embedded in the research literature. It does not only present a personal reflection on their data, but also integrates adult learning theories to reflect on how online learning might need to be reactive to the needs of adult learners.
Henning, T. B. (2012). Writing professor as adult learner: An autoethnography of online professional development. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 16(2), 9-26.
Autoethnography is a controversial research methodology. It has struggled to gain recognition as a valid research method in many scholarly fields, while gaining some traction in cultural studies, gender studies, anthropology, and literary studies fields.
While it does not replace the highly-valuable quantitative research and large-scale qualitative studies that help progress social understandings and scientific knowledge, it does help to dig far deeper into human experiences than many other studies possibly can.
Adams, T. E., Ellis, C., & Jones, S. H. (2017). Autoethnography. The international encyclopedia of communication research methods, 1-11. doi: https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118901731.iecrm0011
Cohen, Manion & Morrison (2018). Research methods in education. London: Routledge.
Edwards, J. (2021). Ethical autoethnography: Is it possible?. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 20, 1609406921995306.
Mentz, E., Olivier, J., Bailey, R., Bosch, C., Kruger, C., Kruger, D., … & Van der Westhuizen, C. (2020). Self-directed multimodal learning in higher education (p. 468). AOSIS.
Pretorius, L., & Cutri, J. (2019). Autoethnography: Researching personal experiences. Wellbeing in doctoral education: Insights and guidance from the student experience, 27-34.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]