Autoethnography: Objectivity’s Kinda Pish, Really

First up, real quick, what do I mean by autoethnography for those who aren’t playing along at home?

The basic practice as I explain it to students is you have an experience, you write about that experience, then you critically write about that writing about the experience.

I guess one of the things about autoethnography, and why I like it so much is that it’s kind of leaning against a lot of the walls that bug me in my own experiences. When I was working in other fields – like Journalism – I ran headlong into like, these walls of assumption. The ideas tended towards wanting there to be some bigger absolute underneath everything, with a view of ‘news’ as being about ‘objective reporting of facts,’ which always felt weird to me.

I sometimes wonder if this attaches to my experience in my upbringing, where there were things I were told that were factually true, and also it turned out, radically misrepresented reality. I grew up around liars and it taught me that a lot of the time when you think you’ve hit the bottom of a truth, all you’re going to find is something else you can dig into further.

Anyway, in academic research, objectivity is something that you can strive for. It’s really good, when you’re testing something like atomic clocks or constructions of engineering devices, to try and remove as many of your own biases as possible. We do this with things like precise measurements, discrete and controlled data points and by providing as much information as we can about methodology to make sure you know the ‘how’ of a piece of study as the ‘what.’

Now, this isn’t perfect as systems go, and that’s why we then replicate studies and stuff. This replication is another way we can shave off those biases, by doing the same experiments and research in different places. Part of the problem arises when something is too rare or small to study, or doesn’t fit well in a pill bottle. Basically, this definition of ‘objective’ is a really strong idea for quantitative research, and trying to do it with qualitative research runs into walls. Sample sizes, for example, are one of the ways you avoid biases. The more samples you can do of a test, the more consistent your results wind up being. That can be a bit of a problem when you’re trying to research the experiences of say, twelve people who experienced something.

While you’re digging around trying to find a way to ‘objectively define’ an emotion you wind up going further and further afield trying to find something concrete you can anchor to and that leaves us in the world of false positives. Studies attempting to ‘prove’ a link between violence in videogames and violence in action wound up sticking electrodes on people and found that, while playing a competitive videogame, the parts of the brain that relate to competition light up. Not the strongest result.

Autoethnography is just digging down into another one of those objective truths to find out what’s underneath it, what we assume must be true to make it true. This means that autoethnography as a tool gets to look, all squinty-eyed at some pretty important things and ask hey, what are you doing here?

Things like, and this list is almost copy-effing-pasted:

  • The assumptions that there are universal truths for ideas of human interaction, that you can prove that it was the right thing to spoil the Last Jedi, Erin
  • The possibility of making certain knowledge claims about humans, experiences, relationships and cultures
  • The prohibition of stories and storytelling as ways of knowing
  • The bias against affect and emotion
  • The refusal to accept ‘local knowledge’
  • All That Colonialism

This list is pretty nasty when you think about it. Think about it, you know there are some nasty chodes who think that they can logic you out of your feelings, or think that they can ‘prove’ patriarchy is ‘just logic’ and inevitably, you know they’re using a particular set of base assumptions.

I particularly want to hold out the colonialism thing. Lots of dudes are able to ‘logic away’ racism, in particular, by pointing out the way that (for example), Zimbabwe is all messed up politically and economically, which is a neat idea if you forget that Zimbabwe had massive amounts of wealth extracted for it, and massive cultural problems introduced in that extraction, and now we expect everything to be fixed because we let them pick their own flag. I mean, yeah, Zimbabwe’s economy sucks and its leadership are (almost certainly, depending on when someone comes back to read this, and I hope Zimbabwe’s doing fine now) corrupt as heck. Those are measurable things, but when you start measuring right now it sort of begs askance of how things got that way, and that, inevitably ties back into colonialism.

So what’s autoethnography actually do to challenge this? It’s one thing to say ‘by doing autoethnography, we slay the dragon,’ but how does it actually do it?

The big things are:

  • It recognises the researcher is a component of the research
  • It accepts that the researcher brings a critical lens to the work, and that lens itself can be critically examined
  • It recognises the humanity of subjects and therefore, the ethical responsibility to properly represent them
  • It puts more flexible, powerful tools in the hands of people who do not have a vast corpus of supporting work free of the aforementioned colonialism

I mean it’s no great shock that Autoethnography appeals to marginalised people as a tool for getting accounts of their experiences into academic research that was formerly conducted by outsiders regarding the lived experiences of (for example) black queers as one might examine a bluebottle in a jar. One final point, which is why I’m using it:

  • It allows for an inspection of the inner life and creative process

If I wanted to prove the Sistine Chapel was influenced by the exploration of cadavers, there’s a body of work I could use. I could dig up historical records by third parties of the timeline of the production, I could use historical texts to show how cadaver inspection was regarded, deal with the written character of Michaelangelo from his own writing and other people’s accounts and draw a possible historical research hypothesis that indicated that yes, the dude was probably influenced by that (or probably not, depending on what the text shows). That’s great, there’s texts, there’s rigor, there’s a respected subject. If I want to show you how I in the year of our luigi 2018 jumped from an argument on twitter about voting systems to an examination of the Pirates of the Caribbean to a sudden startling consideration of an auction game, I don’t have any of those external texts and need to provide them myself. And providing your own texts is a dicey business, because those texts haven’t been examined critically…

… unless you do that, and that is doing autoethnography.

This blog post represents my notes on my PhD reading of Autoethnography: Understanding Qualitative Research, by Tony E Adams, Stacy Holman Jones and Carolyn Ellis (2015), pages 1-14.

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