Hey, let’s start with an extremely difficult thing to define and unpack it a little.
Autoethnography is a method for qualitative research that focuses on academically exploring the personal experiences and autobiographical records of the researcher.
Okay, now to unpack that a little more. Qualitative research is research that focuses on examining things that cannot be easily or readily reduced into hard values — that’s quantitative research. So qualitative research is about, well, qualities. Qualitative research is very much about asking people questions, divining their experiences, taking them seriously and observing connections and patterns.
You might be familiar with surveys that ask you to rank things in order; that’s quantitative. Surveys that ask you your opinions or feelings, those are qualitative. Qualitative research is generally harder and slower and tends to need a human interpreter, rather than responding to mathematical tools.
Second academically exploring things is to look at things not as an expression but rather as a piece of text that can be related to with other academic tools. It’s bringing to bear analysis tools reserved for examining texts to bear on the the account of the experience.
Personal experience, I hope is pretty self explanatory. Autobiographical records are the things you, yourself, record about what you experience. This is normally seen as pretty shifty in academic research – after all, if you can get an objective measure of something, best to do that, rather than write down what happened to you.
With that breakdown in mind, what’s a way to explain autoethnography simply?
The first way is: There is no clear answer right now. It’s a complicated thing and it means a lot of things.
The second way, the pragmatic way, is that autoethnography is the process of experiencing something; writing about your experience; then interrogating what you wrote –not what you experienced – as an academic text.
Or shorter: You write, then you examine what you write.
Why do we use it? A couple of reasons. One it’s really hard to write about some things with quantitative research. Psychology, psychotherapy, art participation, sociological experiments, and on-the-spot historical accounts are all pretty hard to account. It’s useful for some situations where other forms of research would need larger examinations or complicated data gathering, and you don’t have a lot of time, like the immediate aftermath of an event. It’s also really useful for recognising processes that don’t standardise well, like following an artist or a composer’s work.
It’s not a perfect method at all – it’s got a lot of boundary problems, and if your autoethographic work moves near things that you can quantitatively research, and then don’t, you run the risk of leaving something untethered from more readily provable facts. It’s but one tool in the toolbox.
It’s also a handy practice to know of. If you’re prone to writing about your experience, you can go back and re-examine that writing as if it were academic text. I guess that always comes back to my personal position of take the things people do seriously.