Notes! Autoethnography: Understanding Qualitative Research, Part 1

So one of the things you do for a PhD is read.

You read a lot.

And I mean alot.

Back in July, one of the books I’ve read is the book Autoethnography: Understanding Qualitative Research, by Adams, Jones and Ellis, which is basically a big how-to guide on what Autoethnography is (a research method), what it’s for (lots of things) and how to do it (lots of ways). I have to compile notes on this subject and well, since I spent today (the far past to this post time) writing up my notes on the thing from my sprawled out hand-scribbly notebook, and turning them into something readable, I figure it’s worth putting them in my blog as an example of the kind of writing I do for academia, split in to two parts so as to not be too weighty.

With that in mind, this is an an overview book about Doing Autoethnography, and its purpose. The book uses the experiences of doing Autoethnography by the three authors, incorporates their specific identities and experiences, and shows the areas of overlap in their process.

What Does It Cover?

The book is jam packed with Autoethnographc technique, though I’m not certain if it’s all methodology. The core of the book is an explanation of what Autoethnography does, and what Autoethnography is for, and that involves a large portion of time spent breaking away at the boundaries of what Autoethnography is and can be assumed to be. Particularly, it covers the rudimentary process of experience, examination, re-examination, and it magnifies the importance of the recognition of the self in the experience of Autoethnographic Academic writing.

Interesting Elements/Ideas/Issues?

Boy howdy!

Okay, so this book covers lots of things.

First, there’s a discussion of the conception of the importance of vulnerability (p51). The nature of Autoethnography is one where the very foundational expression has to come from a place of sincerity, because otherwise you could be making up any old bollocks. This means that we have to be willing to express and expose elements of ourselves and the lens we’re using that may make us uncomfortable, such as an adoptive mother expressing in less-than-perfected language the anguish of the process, or a person of colour grappling with ideas of internalised racism. This is not to say all autoethnography must be fundamentally raw and painful but that there must be a willingness to do so, that if it becomes part of the task, it needs to be included. Quantitative research does what it can to route around these points of human vulnerability, because they are fundamentally difficult to trust as data points, so this is a way the two differ.

This vulnerability is particularly of interest as it relates to the idea of the Politics Of Love (The Complicity Contract, Simplican). This positions vulnerability as an importance for a vision of other people – to perceive people not as agents of strength, of actors and doers, but rather as entities of needs. This has a side effect of working against perceiving your subjects as means to ends (Kant, I Guess), and pushes back against more exploitative positions that are anti-social justice.

Which gets us to another point that Autoethnography is fundamentally positioned to enable a more socially just cause in academia. Autoethnography has lower barriers to entry, recognises the importance of the identity of the individual, and rejects the supreme importance of a colonial view of correctness (p55) which makes it suitable for bringing forward stories that have been discarded throughout academic writing so far. This also favours using a familiar voice and avoiding the use of jargon.

This vision of justice also means that it has to avoid trying to be one-sided, which is part of this ideal of vulnerability. This means that subjects and autoethnographers often have to work through mutual causes of harm, have to recognise reciprocity. There is an idea described of Listening Out Loud. In Listening Out Loud (which I might have to abbreviate to lol, lol) you basically have to keep a steady flow of communication – both listening and talking – to your sources. This can be clarifying, and reaffirming, and also a regular flow of checking for consent – is this okay? Is this okay? How about now? – as you gather information. This also helps to build that mentioned reciprocity.

The limits of Listening Out Loud are that you’re dealing with a person’s memory, you’re listening to them communicate with language, and that language will sometimes involve imperfect metaphor. The virtues on the other hand are that they enable a degree of sincere emotionality and the person bringing their own proactive focus to the work. Listening out Loud nonetheless becomes part of collaborative witnessing – both the building of consensus between witnesses, but also seeing the autoethnographer as an entity with a skill to explore and refine the voices of those witnessing.

Now, with that break in my notes, we’ll talk more about what’s in the second half of the book the day after tomorrow.

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