Autoethnography is Nonsense – An opinion piece by Robin Öberg
Autoethnography is a method that is most often employed by social scientists. Autoethnography is comprised of the terms auto, ethno, and graphy. Auto refers to self, ethno refers to comparation or people, and graphy refers to the art of writing. It is a method whereby one goes into a field, which is often a group of people, and once in the field, one gathers observational data of oneself in the field (Ellis, 2004). Methodologically speaking, autoethnography is a method that combines autobiography and ethnography. Autobiography is when one writes down one’s own life experiences, ethnography is when one writes down the experiences of a group of people. In autoethnography then, one observes and investigates one’s own experiences in a culture, not necessarily someone else’s experience in their own culture. Text-wise, the borders between writing a fictional novel, writing a travel log, and writing a scientific research study, are blurred beyond recognition. It does not really matter if there is any truth-value to the final text, as long as someone finds the text useful in some way or another.
Autoethnography is a quite recent innovation. It came about as a postmodern response to what was perceived of as biased and alienating methods, methods made popular by scientists who believed that science ought to be a more objective mission. Originators of autoethnography wanted to highlight issues of identity politics in relation to social injustices. They saw conventional ethnographic works as a form of intellectual theft; A privileged outside researcher coming into a field, taking knowledge privy to a particular culture, and then profiting off of the sales and status that the knowledge was turned into (Conquergood, 1991; Ellis, 2007; Riedmann, 1993). Sales and status that the people of the culture was not seen to gain any benefit from. The researcher doing all this was seen by autoethnographers as a stereotypical rich and literate white male coming from a developed first world country, while the people being researched were conversely seen as the stereotypical poor and illiterate black female in cultures situated in less developed regions. Furthermore, the originators of autoethnography thought that hard science is itself the mechanism whereby the process of increasing inequality is reified and justified. To sum up then, there were three main reasons as to why autoethnography arose:
- To counter intellectual theft
- To counter increasing inequality
- To counter division between hard science and art
Starting by considering point number 1, autoethnography purports an active political agenda where the autoethnographer is ethically obliged to ask for permission on each and every inclusion and interpretation, as well as ethically obliged to share any credit and remuneration coming out of the final product. This comes out of a conscious decision to take a stance on issues, instead of trying to separate the roles of the professional researcher and the role of the private person doing the researching (Bochner, 1994). There are several issues with this; First, it threatens the academic freedom of the researcher, not only because insiders of a culture might deny the researcher to write about certain topics, depending on how embarrassing or offensive they might consider these topics to be to themselves, but also because political agendas are value-laden phenomena that directly impacts research processes as well as subsequent research results. Second, an experienced and properly educated ethnographer already takes any potential harm of the people into account, as the researcher employs a continuous reflexivity on each and every methodological decision made throughout the ethnographic fieldwork process. Third, it threatens the higher level of abstraction that a university educated researcher can move about on due to its employment of advanced theoretical analysis, as insiders of a culture are taking over part of the role of authority in the text. There might be more issues, but I will stop there, and say something more about the third issue of level of abstraction. It must be said that there is a problem with the distance that overly complicated jargon can create between academics and non-academics, because it hinders the intersubjectivity between the final text and the potential reader, and without this intersubjectivity, the text serves no purpose. However, one can as a conventional ethnographer still move about on higher levels of abstraction, without using heavy jargon, so that is not the problem at hand here. A higher level of abstraction only means that the researcher can consider things like validity, reliability, truth-value, generalisability, rationale, significance, metaphors, symbolism, correlations, causations, and other aspects that distinguishes a trained scientist from an untrained layman. For example, if a group of people believe in witchcraft, it does harm to the analysis if the researcher takes a professional stance on whether or not witchcraft actually exists, instead of just investigating what potential consequences the belief itself might have. Similarly, making any judgement calls on people who do not believe in witchcraft, as a form of anti-orientalism or anti-othering, is in itself already ethnocentric, and as such also harmful to the scientific process. So, to sum up then; One does not have to be an autoethnographer to be reflexive about one’s position in the field, and it is unscientific to surrender one’s authority without micromanaging the process.
Going back to point number 2 for why autoethnography arose, concerning the inequality that conventional ethnography is seen to exacerbate, this inequality can be said to be leaning on a foundation of assumptions about identity politics (Holman Jones, 2005, p.764). To be fair, autoethnographers give a voice to people’s concerns about social representation. That is to say that they acknowledge the experienced importance of gender, race, class, and a multitude of other social divisions, and of course all experiences are real, so these social divisions do matter to the people in the field where the (auto)ethnographer finds itself. However, and here again an issue of levels of abstraction reveals itself, there is a difference between the phenomena being studied and the research process that studies the phenomena; Just because a group of people find it important that their neighbours have different magnitudes of melanin in their skin, that does not mean that the researcher should adopt this value of racism and go on to purport it within academia. Just because a society organises itself via gender divisions of labour, that does not mean that the researcher should adopt this value of sexism and go on to purport it within academia. Actually, doing anything like that will threaten academic freedom, as the judgement of quality goes from the actual research that has been performed, to the researcher that has performed it. One questions what the researcher has between its legs, one questions what skin tone the researcher has, which nation it comes from, what dialect it speaks with, and so on. Doing that removes focus from questions relating to the rigorousness of the research itself, such as questions pertaining to methodological choices and analytic interpretations, which is what the scientific inquiry should be about. So, to sum up then; Dismissing the research results purely based on the social identity of the researcher would be completely irrelevant to the rationale and significance of the actual research, no matter if it is done by an autoethnographer or an ethnographer, and the permanent ‘going native’ that the purporting of political agendas in academia is born out of, is a threat to the academic freedom of all academics in university.
Finally, point number three, concerning the division between hard science and art. Science vs philosophy, hard science vs soft science, science vs art, and so on, this schism goes by many names. This has been a topic of debate for a very long time, even the ancient Greeks discussed questions pertaining to this issue, so it can be doubted if there will be a determinate conclusion to it at this point in time. Autoethnography aims to blur the boundary through the writing process primarily. Writing the text as a story, with different narrators, that go through various elements common in story-telling, not just to build an introduction for an eventual scientific analysis, as ethnographers can often do now after the influence of postmodernism, but as the whole product itself, is part of the current tradition in autoethnography. It is a conscious decision, to forego values commonly associated with the scientific method, and to instead focus solely on the final text itself. This makes it very difficult to critique autoethnography, as autoethnography does not try to adhere to the same standards as regular science. It does not perturb autoethnography to call it unscientific, because autoethnography does not try to be scientific (Bochner, 2000; Ellis, 2009). The only validity and reliability an autoethnographer has to follow, is in relation to credibility of the final text, and not in relation to the how the text came to be (Bochner, 2002, p.86). Scientifically speaking, that makes no sense. It is not about enforcing some kind of unattainable ideal of objectivity, it is not about avoiding beautiful literary descriptions in the text, it is about the reader being able to trace the methodological choices and antecedent justifications. Otherwise anyone could write a convincing text, call it autoethnography, and publish it as a paper in a scientific journal. Conventional ethnography can add sections of more literary descriptions, even have parts of the text as a story, but an ethnographer cannot make stuff up just to make a point, and there are good reasons for that too. The main reason is trust. If a reader picks up a peer-reviewed scientific journal, it expects to find texts that helps it navigate its reality more easily. Otherwise the reader might as well go to the library and pick up a good thriller or romance novel. It feels a bit silly to say these things, as they seem relatively obvious, but again, the problem is that autoethnography does not follow the same standards as science, so this criticism falls on deaf ears. It is like talking about process behind creating a text, when someone adamantly points to the form of the text itself. So, to sum up then; In terms of being engaging and genre-transgressing, what autoethnography provides is at least paralleled by conventional ethnography, and unfortunately autoethnography has no problem being unscientific because it does not adhere to the same standards as the scientific method.
I would say that about 50% of the justification behind employing autoethnography can be achieved by employing conventional ethnography, 25% of it is directly harmful to the research process and academia, and the last 25% is just nonsensical fluff that adds nothing of value to the scientific body of knowledge. Looking at it from this perspective, autoethnography seems to create a kind of echo-chamber, where values of the zeitgeist are repeated. Of course, that is just my opinion, but I have as of yet found no substantial argument for employing autoethnography as a method in the field. If one travels to a different culture, then why not immerse oneself in it, and interact with it, learn from it, and help the world become safe from misunderstandings. If one is afraid of doing that, fine, there is nothing wrong with being an armchair anthropologist either. Also, it can be fun to remember that the term for doing something that one is afraid of, is courage. In the long run, it helps everyone, including any people being studied, that the world learns about cultural specifics and cultural universals, the things that makes humans human. So, unless one can find a very convincing reason to opt for autoethnography as a method, then just don’t.
Huge thanks to Robin Öberg for providing this post, if you would like to submit content for HJA then please visit the Contact page and send a request. Don’t forget to like and subscribe to HJA for more!
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