Autoethnography is a term I first encountered – or remember encountering – as a graduate student. I don’t think I understood it at first, and maybe I still don’t.
Ethnography, with all its Anthropological underpinnings and close attention to the explanatory functions of critical theory, made more sense to me.
I had to complete an ethnography assignment for one of the first graduate seminars I took. I wrote an essay (even shorter than this one) about a local sports bar that I liked to attend. It was an approach that almost immediately made sense to me: when applying the skills associated with the research method, I quickly began to view the communication occurring around me in new ways. Things stood out: the particulars of regional accents, the relational maintenance functions of skillfully deployed profanity, the fascinating juxtaposition of the finely-tuned and slickly-produced sports and beer marketing, which largely defined the look of the place, against the more plainly-dressed working-class clientele who frequented it. Even if it wasn’t a method that I would subsequently deploy much beyond that course, the idea at the root of ethnography – to function as a sort of anthropologist of communication – has continued to have a lot of appeal for me.
Autoethnography, by contrast, has at times seemed a bit “made up” to me. I recall that, when I was a graduate student, I dismissed it as a kind of narcissistic methodology that offers much more to the person who writes it than to any audience that might encounter it. I considered it to be a sort of “writing therapy” dressed in the trappings of critical theory terminology and published by scholars who likely had to fall back on the method when they couldn’t get IRB approval to work with others.
In the many years since, I have encountered colleagues who do interesting autoethnographic work and/or who have written persuasively about the method’s value, and I recognize that the views I had as a graduate student were both unfair and unlearned. However, the weight of that initial impression bore on my early thinking about the Pandemic Nature Project, which is in many ways an autoethnographic project, albeit in a slightly unusual form. So, as I have worked on this, I have found it useful to read up a bit on autoethnography and to reacquaint myself with the ways in which it intersects with research on public memory, media, and critical theory.
Evans and Blair: “Autoethnography is a form of self-narrative that places the self within the social context and has the capacity to provoke viewers to broaden their horizons, reflect critically on experiences, enter empathetically into the lives of others, and actively participate in dialogue regarding the social implications of the encountered.”
This is as good of a description as any of what this project is meant to do, especially the idea about autoethnography’s audience being understood first and foremost as “viewers” as opposed to “readers”. The autoethnographies I’ve found most compelling are those with descriptive language, embedded illustrations and photos, or that are connected to performance. (The strong connections between performance studies and autoethnography have made more and more sense to me as I’ve worked on this project.) It is in those interstices between the author’s prose/voice and the visualizations/perspectives of their experiences that autoethnography opens itself up to the analytical and critical.
Gannon: “Analytical autoethnography demands a dialogue with information that goes beyond the writer’s self and self-experience. Like art, autoethnography does not always do as it is expected to do; if claims for truth are no more than our sweetest deception then perhaps the best we can do is to lace our claims with caution and locate our cautions within frames that are as analytically sound as they are evocatively rich.”
Much of Gannon’s take on autoethnography reflects on the way that I already think about both private and public memory – the claims we make about the significance of a particular event, or of a particular time period in history (such as “the year 2020”) are at best contingent, grounded in what we know at the time, in what our present needs for those recollections are. Accordingly, our analysis comes after, from a removed perspective.
Autoethnography is fascinating as a method, in part, because of its ability to try and do the kind of “post-event” analysis that most methods rely on…but in real time (or as close as any form of communication research can get to that concept). This is why the visual/descriptive becomes so essential to good autoethnography – it must document why it made its claims. It is why I find especially “creative” or ”artistic” autoethnography to be analytically provocative and critically productive.
Autoethnography also allows a space for a kind of “melding” of theoretical ideas that might otherwise seem disparate, disconnected, or extraneous. In this way, it is an ideal hypertextual methodology, and one that adapts itself well to hypertextual contexts of presentation. This also gives autoethnographic practices a kind of impressionistic veneer, one that can be frustrating for a reader looking for “the take away” but a place to “stay and think” for those who value a project that might create that space. (It is from this space, that one might “enter emphatically into the lives of others”.)
Poulos: “And so I find my way toward a way of making some- thing from it all... In some very important ways, all autoethnography is really co-autoethnography. It only has being insofar as it engages some relation to a reader, or an audience, and that reader/audience is taking it in, and responding to it. And so, I send it out to you, and you read it, and something in you starts to change, and together, we create the gold of call and response, of writing and reading, of listening and responding, of writing and writing back, of co-authoring a new relational being.”
Poulos’ marked musings about co-autoethnography have echoed around in my head as I walked in the woods, wrote on the web, worked my camera, and ran my wrists over my keyboards in crafting different parts of this project. How might these things come together to provide a presentation of not just my own communication practices during the pandemic, but also one that incorporates the viewer into the project, creating that “call and response”? While the central juxtapositions of the project – nature/pandemic, socialization/isolation, personal/political – are primary in most pieces, there’s also a potential juxtaposition between my own experience of the pandemic against the pandemic experience any viewer of my project may have. Autoethnography, a method that allows for many conceptual, visual, or personal points of entry and departure within a single work, can push those juxtapositions towards critical productivity.
Evans & Blair (2016) – “Listening To Self: An Appeal for Autoethnography in Art Museum Education.” Medium.
Gannon, S. (2006) – “The (Im)Possibilities of Writing the Self-Writing: French Poststructural Theory and Autoethnography.” Cultural Studies ↔ Critical Methodologies.
Poulos, C. (2015) – “An Autoethnography of Memory and Connection.” Qualitative Inquiry.