Autoethnography: What is it and how do you do it?

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Dr Lynette Pretorius

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Dr Lynette Pretorius is an award-winning educator and researcher in the fields of academic language, literacy, research skills, and research methodologies. 

Autoethnography has become an increasingly popular research methodology, particularly within the humanities and social sciences. I use it regularly because of its emphasis on personal experiences, reflexivity, and storytelling which allows for a deeper exploration of complex experiences and societies. So what is autoethnography? The name autoethnography comes from three core aspects: self, culture, and writing. So, literally, autoethnography is an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyse personal experience to better understand cultural experiences.

As I’ve noted in a recent book chapter, there are several reasons why I find autoethnography a particularly compelling research methodology.

  • First, autoethnography allows researchers to purposely explore personal experiences to understand a particular culture or society. Researching personal experiences is becoming increasingly important as individuals’ stories are recognised as important sources of knowledge. Personal experiences can provide unique insights into social, cultural, and historical contexts and highlight the complexities of human experience.
  • Second, autoethnography considers insider knowledge as a valuable source of data. Researchers are the participants in their own studies and the stories which are told often explore transformative experiences for the researcher, frequently taking the form of epiphanies that significantly influenced the author’s worldview. I believe that this allows researchers to provide more meaningful insights into complex phenomena compared with more traditional objective research methods.
  • Third, autoethnography empowers researchers as it allows them to embrace emotionality and uncertainty and highlight topics that may be considered hidden or taboo. Autoethnography allows researchers to connect with their own emotions and experiences and, in doing so, find their voice. It allows them to challenge the dominant narratives that often dominate research and to tell their own stories in their own words.
  • And finally, autoethnography is a more accessible type of research for those outside of academia because it is written from personal experience in easy-to-understand language. The autoethnographer also does not merely narrate an experience for their audience. Instead, they try to engage the audience in the conversation so that the audience can understand experiences which may be different from their own. By sharing their own experiences, they can create a space for others to share theirs, fostering a more equitable and inclusive research process.

It is important to note that autoethnography does have some challenges. Some researchers critique it as a methodology because it is not scientific enough, while others say it is not artistic enough. I believe, however, that these critiques fail to see the value of combining both science and art when exploring complex phenomena. In this way, autoethnographers can advocate for social change to address perceived societal wrongs.

So how do you actually do autoethnography in your research project? It is important to remember that there is no one way to do autoethnography. What is most important is to develop systematic data collection and analysis methods that help you deeply explore your personal experience.

First, it is important to have a series of reflective prompts to help you explore your experiences. I use a simple prompt strategy, which gives very open initial prompts to allow me to delve into my personal experiences, analyse my emotions and thoughts during that period, reflect on how I feel now, and determine how my previous experiences have impacted my current philosophy or practice.

  • Describing the experience
    • What happened?
    • What did I do?
  • Analysing the experience
    • What was I thinking and feeling?
    • How do I feel now?
    • What went well?
    • What could I have done better?
  • Creating a step-by-step plan
    • How will this information be useful in the future?
    • How can I modify my practice in the future?
    • What help do I need?

Second, you need a way to record your reflections. I like to start my reflection journey by voice or video recording a conversation I have with myself, thinking about my past experiences. I start by thinking about what happened, what I did, what I was thinking and feeling at the time, and how I feel now. Then, I explore how I think the experience has informed my way of being now. How has it shaped my future practice? Why? After finishing the recording, I transcribe the recording and use this transcription as my initial data.

Third, you can also consult relevant artefacts as part of your autoethnography, such as photos and documents from the past to help you think and reflect more deeply about an experience. You can also consult other important figures such as family or friends from your past to help you see the experience from multiple viewpoints. It is important to note that you will require ethics approval for your study if you use photos with other people in them, or the significant people you consult are possibly identifiable in your final project.

Fourth, you use the writing process as part of your reflection process.  Through the writing process, you further reflect on what you were thinking and feeling during the experiences you are describing. These reflections can remind you of other experiences that shaped your understanding of that experience. This continuous writing and re-writing of your story becomes further data sources that allow you to engage more deeply with your experiences. Remember to lean into your story’s more emotive and vulnerable parts, as this will allow you to uncover hidden perspectives in your understanding more effectively. Ask yourself, why did this experience make me feel this way? What does it tell me about the context I found myself?

Finally, as you write about your experiences, you should incorporate your theoretical analysis. Start looking for key concepts you have identified in your reflections and how they link to your overarching research problem. Which theoretical concepts do they reflect? What can others learn from your experience?

In conclusion, good quality autoethnography explores personal experiences to illuminate a particular cultural context.  Autoethnography is not merely telling your story. It is analysing your story to uncover previously ignored perspectives within a particular research context.

Questions to ponder

Autoethnography emphasises the value of personal experiences in understanding cultural contexts. Reflect on an experience from your life that could offer unique insights into a particular cultural or societal aspect. How could analysing this personal experience using autoethnography enhance our understanding of broader cultural phenomena?

What are your thoughts on balancing the scientific rigour and artistic expression in autoethnography? Can you think of any specific situations or contexts where this methodology might be particularly beneficial or problematic?

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