Autoethnography: great in theory, confusing in reality

By the end of this weeks class I think it is safe to say that most people left more confused than when they arrived.

I for one most certainly was.

In theory, I (think) understand autoethnography.  Autoethnography aims to take note of personal experiences of a culture other than your own. By reflecting on ones own socialisation, an autoethnographer seeks to better understand the culture of another.

When Chris talks through the theory and after reading the Ellis reading I thought to myself “yeah okay, no worries. I can do this”.

For sure I can think about my own socialisation and how that has affected my worldview. Sure after acknowledging my cultural framework I can proceed to experience a culture quite unlike my own with absolute no judgement or other-ing thoughts.

However… when the class began to discuss this notion and what it practically meant, my confidence was shot.

A class member brought up an article about a Japanese man and his sex doll. I had recently read a similar article myself as I have been contemplating studying something around Japanese dolls. As I listened to Chris and this class member discuss the problematic tendency to judge and then to understand where that judgement comes from, I realised the very real challenges of this kind of research.

By nature I can be an extremely judgemental person and often the thoughts come without thinking about why. This lead me to thinking about how judgement or experiencing the unknown can lead to a sense of ‘other-ness’ for the new cultural experience.

I feel that this will be my most significant issue when undertaking my autoethnographic research. As discussed in class, research does not exist in a vaccum and comparisons from what I believe I know or feel will undoubtedly effect the research that I undertake and I am curious to what degree I will be able to identify that.

 

Autoethnography – Why it’s a good thing

Let’s start with the definition that will probably be included in every blog post this week.

“Autoethnography is an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyze (graphy) personal experience (auto) in order to understand cultural experience (ethno)” (ELLIS, 2004; HOLMAN JONES, 2005).

In my own words, Autoethnography is the implementation of personal experiences and culture into the study and writing of things to help understand the researchers own personal context and the effects it will have on their interpretation of the material being studied.

I’m pretty sure I may have made it sound more complicated (haha) but this is the way that makes sense in my head. The phrasing of this is due to my personal history of extension history and research- which was all about using the information you’re given to present an argument based on your own ideas. Which I think is definitely similar to autoethnography.

After a quick flick through the Wikipedia page, it makes sense that if we want to study social aspects further, then we must look towards our own views and background to make sense of it, as well as to show new and improved concepts on past studies.

Somethings have already stood out to me as being autoethnographic-ish in this subject. Firstly, in week one with our study of Godzilla- I realised that due to my personal background, I had a deeper understanding of the Japanese culture and the importance of the signage and language format used throughout the film. I then used this in the blog post for that week to explain to other in the class, what it was in my personal context that allowed me to notice these details.

I think this is beneficial when it comes to research and the future of studying topics across cultures. It enables a better understanding of the culture being studied and also of how your own personal context can influence how you see things and interpret what you’re seeing. While more traditional research practices ask you to remain impartial and not choose sides- this is impossible and often leads you to read research papers without knowing fully the context of the writer of the work.

When it comes to the interpretation of film and media consumption- it’s beneficial and important to know the biographical details of both those who created the work and also those who are researching and passing on their opinion.

I hope this made sense, and I didn’t end up rambling too much!

autoethnography

Sources:

Autoethnography

As a university student, we are often told that in order to obtain quality qualitative or quantitive data, we must remain externally observant and completely uninvolved with the subject. Autoethnography challenges this concept.

“Autoethnography is an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyse (graphy) personal experience (auto) in order to understand cultural experience (ethno),” – Ellis, Adams and Bocher 2010

As a process it is a method that employs both autobiography and ethnography. As an autobiographical practice, the method identifies epiphanies as points of understanding. As an ethnographic practice, the method studies cultural practices. Together, the findings portray a personal and emotive analysis. The product means the work is presented in a story like manner. This narrative structure does focus on communicating the truth. There are characters, scenes, events and plot progressions. The research presented aims to captivate the audience and share personal and interpersonal experiences.

Autoethnography’s use of such immersive methods has lead to academic debates. Potential criticism argue that it is not possible to understand a situation when one is a part of the setting, one is personally invested and therefore personal motives will interfere with research. Furthermore, there is a moral debate for relational ethics, specifically in regards to ensuring there is a healthy dynamic between all parties involved and matters of subject confidentiality.

Autoethnography argues that this personal expereince is exactly what enhances the research method. It is only through self reflection, self awareness and emersion into a setting that one can truly empathise, and in turn understand a subject. No two people will view or remember an experience, even a shared experience, in the same manner. The feelings and backgrounds of a subject are fundamental to understanding data. In the same way, the feelings and backgrounds of the researcher are just as influential. Autoethnography acknowledges this, but embraces that the individuals socio-cultural behaviours within a society shape perceptions, and reveal the essence of a subject – the researcher will only know this when close to or a part of the same subject.

Personally I value autoethnography for certain kinds of research, specifically when conducting qualitative cultural research. Sometimes being human means that sharing an experience is the only way to communicate.

Ellis, C., Adams, T.E., and Bochner, A.P. (2011) ‘Autoethnography: An Overview‘, Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 12:1. Available at: http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/1589/3095

Gojira

After going through the lecture slides, I downloaded Gojira and watched it on a Sydney to Wollongong train trip. In some ways, watching a black and white Japanese foreign film while on an Australian train provided great juxtaposition for cultural awareness. I was sitting in a carriage with fellow Australians, some in suits, some in jeans and converse, some very drunkenly slurring Aussie slang while others shielded their children’s post day care ears from such colourful language. And here I sat watching a film where even the monsters were treated with respect.

As a first generation migrant, to whom English is technically a second language, I have grown up loving foreign films. I grew up in house where children did not often watch TV. If we were watching TV it was a SBS (SBS before 8.30pm ehm ehm) family movie night – popcorn, home made Bengali and Arab sweets, world music soundtracks and subtitles. As a child I had the joy of watching and reading artsy, indie and documentarian Bengali films. As I got a little older, we would go to foreign film festivals. I moved out of home at 17 but like many familial attributes, the love for foreign film moved with me.

Growing up as a person of brown colouring in a multicultural, yet very white part of Sydney, my exposure to Western film was channelled through friends birthday parties and movies watched in school – limited to essentially The Goonies and The Rabbit Proof Fence. It wasn’t until I was in my later years of high school that I turned to Western Film for entertainment – cue The Godfather, Fight Club and Batman (I have two older brothers). Whether I was watching a eastern or western film, I was raised to question what it is the content is telling us to value, what it wants us to question and in turn, what really was the purpose of making it.

For these reasons, when I noted that Gojira the film was produced in 1954, I understood that it was a comment to the Atomic Age. I have always valued the simplicity and creativity of old film techniques. In one of the scenes in Gojira, we hear the singing of children as the camera pans the destruction of the city after Gojira’s first attack. The slow camera movement creates an emotional allusion to the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  At first the footsteps of the monster seem to be an expected film sound effect, but upon closer reflection, (as someone who has been trapped in a war zone) each step sounds like a bomb – a sound that unfortunately, would be familiar the films post WW2 audience.

How I make sense of the film is framed by by cultural, social and educational conscious and subconscious knowledge. For me the content was telling us to value peace, it wants us to question political tensions and the abuse of power. The purpose of any film is to some extent entertain, but Gojira is a reminder of what has happened and what can reoccur if we do not learn from our historical mistakes.

Autoethnography

Autoethnography is undeniably a big word. Which is why initially I was pretty intimidated by it. However, breaking it down with the help of the 2011 text ‘Autoethnography: an overview’ by Carolyn Ellis, Tony Adams & Arthur Bochner and class discussions essentially helped me achieve a good understanding of the term. Simply put, autoethnography is where an individual uses their own personal experiences in order to comprehend cultural understandings.

After establishing this understanding I then applied the term to my own life and realised something pretty extraordinary. Without even knowing it I have been an active autoethnographer for the three years I have download-1.jpgbeen at University. By starting my personal WordPress blog I have been using my own experiences to understand other cultures. However, the biggest struggle I have found with autoethnography is achieving an equal balance between self-perspective and research or in other words the equal balance between artful and scientific. This balance comes from within the word itself. Autoethonography derives from two separate words- autobiography and ethnography. Autobiography can make a text artful by using various authorial points of view. Ethnography brings scientific descriptions into a text and can rely on other people’s research and experiences.
Personally, I have always preferred relying on research to back my argument. But what I have recently come to understand is that you need your own experiences in order to generate epiphanies. From these we can then apply research and methodology to analyse these experiences.

According to Ellis’ text “Autoethnographers must not only use their methodological tools and research literature to analyze experience, but also must consider ways others may experience similar epiphanies; they must use personal experience to illustrate facets of cultural experience, and, in so doing, make characteristics of a culture familiar for insiders and outsiders. To accomplish this might require comparing and contrasting personal experience against existing research.” (Ellis, C., Adams, T.E., and Bochner, A.P. 2011, p.g. 2)

I hope to try and apply this understanding in my future research and attempt to achieve this balance.

Reference:

Ellis, C., Adams, T.E., and Bochner, A.P. (2011) ‘Autoethnography: An Overview‘, Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 12:1. Available at: http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/1589/3095

Akira (1988)

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Watching the 1988 Japanese film, Akira, was actually my very first time watching a full-length anime movie. It was also the first time I had heard about the film. Prior to this screening my only experience with anime has been watching the television shows Pokémon and One Piece, as a child. This limited experience with Asian culture has a lot to do with my Australian up-bringing where my perspective is majority western.
However, my views have been expanded in the past through my 2010 trip to Japan where I was given a sense of Japanese food, fashion, street life and traditions. In saying this, my trip was a while back and only brief, so my experience with Asia is still very lacking.

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Akira was a perfect introduction to a popular side of Asian culture I have never before experienced. Instantly I found details that differed to the movies I’ve grown up with. One of the biggest things that stuck out was the use of multiple themes and genres. It included romance, violence, comedy, war, politics, fantasy, supernatural, death, nudity, education, street racing. Akira had something for everyone and I believe that’s something rarely found in one film. It brought up so many topics within such a short amount of time and I think that comes down to the genius creativity and imagination involved in the making of the movie. It’s why I believe the film, and anime itself, is so successful across so many different cultures. There is a quote I found online from a long-term anime lover taken from her response regarding the popularity of anime:

“Anime has something for just about everyone. It’s full of cute things, scary things, and pretty things. It pulls you into the story and sometimes makes you sleep with the light on, or will put you in a bad mood for the rest of the day. But it is also full of humor and fun. That extreme change in thought can happen all in a single series.”
– Celia Mitchell

Her reaction as a long term watcher is similar to the one I received just from my first taste of anime films. Akira was a great introduction to a side of Asian culture that I have never experienced before.

Authenticity in Autoethnography?

When Chris Moore dropped the ‘A-bomb’ in class a couple of weeks ago my face remained deadpan and expressionless. It was due to my naivety and unfamiliarity to the word that left me more or less indifferent to it’s meaning. However, within the coming weeks I would understand that  ‘Autoethnography’ is a useful tool in my research.

‘Autoethnography is an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyze (graphy) personal experience (auto) in order to understand cultural experience (ethno)’ – Ellis, Adams & Bochner, 2010

Exploring the ‘unknown’ is both new as it is exciting. Traditional researchers often observe without any real engagement, this leads to limited understanding of cultural context. Misunderstandings between the ‘researcher’ and ‘researched’ through cross-cultural communication can be prevented by autoethnography.

Autoethnography challenges the preconceived assumptions one makes about what is ‘authentic’. During this week’s screening of Akira (1988) there was an ongoing debate about the use of dubbing. Many saying that accommodating for a Western audience almost limits the experience. As authenticity is concerned with the truthfulness of origins, attributes, commitments, and intentions. When it is applied to a culture, anything that doesn’t register as ‘authentic’, is dismissed as ‘fake’ or unreliable. This perpetuating generalisations and limiting room for growth.

Language transfers knowledge. In my own experience, the use of subtitles has opened up a world of understanding. So giving them an English voice, enables a wider audience to experience, observe and question the text.

Being self-reflective is crucial as an autoethnographer. When I was learning Japanese back in first year, I found it super helpful to have peers to study with. This ensured we were engaged but also allowed us to share travel stories, anime we had been watching or food during our breaks. The more time invested in immersing ourselves in these practices, led to a better understanding of the culture. One of the highlights during this period was picking up on passing conversations. ‘Eavesdropping’ on a conversations about a ‘delicious hamburgers’ and trying to contain my excitement because I could understand the context. However, when I lost enthusiasm for the language, these experiences were less consistent.

There is a real fear of cross-cultural ‘contamination’ that comes with the practice of autoethnography. As personal experience influences this research process, it is regarded as detrimental to epistemics. Subjectivity is unavoidable, and as Chris put it, Asia is already in Australia and Australia is already in Asia (2017).

ELLIS, C. ADAMS, T.E. BOCHNER, A.P. (2011) ‘Autoethnography: An Overview‘, Forum: Qualitative Social Research, vol.12, no.1,
http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/1589/3095

MOORE, C (2017) “Global Flow.” Digital Asia. University of Wollongong, Wollongong. Prezi.

REED-DANAHAY, D (1997). Introduction. In D. Reed-Danahay (Ed.), Auto/Ethnography: Rewriting the Self and the Social. (pp. 1–17). Oxford: Berg.

WIKIPEDIA (2017). Carolyn Ellis. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carolyn_Ellis

Take a Look at Yourself

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The first step in autoethnographic research is taking a look at yourself, and understanding that everything that has happened to you makes you who you are, and impacts how you see the world around you. The second step is accepting that you can’t do anything to change that.

I’m sure the majority of people that read this, (my fellow DIGC330 students) are probably a little tired of reading the definition of autoethnography given in the Ellis reading (for everyone else, click the link in my references, it presents a vastly superior explanation of what auto ethnography is), so instead I’ll give my best go at a definition. Autoethnography is an approach to the research of human cultures, in which the researcher immerses themselves in that culture, and uses self-reflection to explore their own personal experience, while linking that with other qualitative research.

My first experience with autoethnography was last year in another one of my classes, Research Practices in Media and Communication. It was love at first sight. It just made so much sense to me, as much as anyone tries to be perfectly unbiased and analytical in qualitative research, it is an impossible task as a human being. Knowing that, isn’t it better to be open in showing where your potential biases are, and more importantly challenge your own thinking.

As I was thinking about autoethnography this week, I remembered doing modern history in year 11, and my teacher consistently writing on my assignments, “You need to include blah.” (Obviously she didn’t actually say blah) I had assumed that I didn’t need to include certain information because I figured it was common knowledge. This was the first time I really thought about how people had different backgrounds, and how that impacts a person.

I’m super keen to conduct my own piece of autoethnographic research on Japanese stand-up. I absolutely love stand-up comedy. I probably watch at least three new specials a week. If I had to go on mastermind stand-up would be my specialist subject. In saying all of this though, the comedians I’ve watched are mostly from America, the UK, and Australia, so I’m curious to expand my horizons through my research on stand-up in Japan. How is it different to what I’ve already seen? What are the topics/themes? What style of comedy is predominant? How popular is it? These are all things I hope to figure out in my research.

References:

Ellis, C., Adams, T.E., and Bochner, A.P. (2011) ‘Autoethnography: An Overview’, Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 12:1.

Apparently I’ve already conducted autoethography… who knew?

So I’m not going to lie to you here, writing blog posts in which I have to understand and reiterate my understanding of a concept or reading… well they scare the living heck out of me. I’ve always got the thought in my mind that… what if I understand it wrong and everything I’ve written is just messy and no one understands and oh god what have I done? Yet, the due date is looming so here we go.

Autoethnography. Not a new concept I’ve come into contact with. (That’ll happen when you’re in your fourth year of study). Through the years, the idea of reflecting through blog posts and researching has woven itself through my study. Deciphering this reading and trying to wrap my head around the content was surprising to me in the fact that it was much simpler to understand than I had previously thought. I have always understood the fact that everything I take in and all my beliefs are due to my upbringing and my background. Yet, it was quite jarring to understand that the way I react to certain cultures is also because of my own cultural context.

“Autoethnography is an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyze (graphy) personal experience (auto) in order to understand cultural experience (ethno)” – (Ellis et al. 2011)

I personally understand autoethnography to be a form of qualitative research where the author immerses themselves and uses self-reflection to explore their personal experience. Though, I don’t believe it stops there. To really understand autoethnographic research, it is vital to connect the first reaction or reflection to a wider understanding, such as cultural, political or just social background. This form of research formulates personal connections between the researcher and the text, but then allows them to think about the text and themselves in a wider context. I believe that this type of research can be extremely rewarding, but it doesn’t mean that academic research isn’t also critical.

It also makes you wonder – you’ve probably been conducting some type of autoethnographic research at some level all your life. We’ve undergone new cultural experiences many times in our lives. Having digested this reading made me understand that without even knowing it, I was conducting autoethnographic research on my trip to Europe earlier this year. This was done through the use of video blogging (vlogging) where I documented my trip, my experience with new cultures and foods and many of the wonders of Europe. (I was really getting a head start on all this autoethnography business, so go me).

I believe that the issue of reflexivity is highly important when it comes to these studies. We need to understand ourselves and our own personal framework and how our own bias will enable us to understand and reflect on our autoethnographic research. I know 100% that my Italian background makes engaging with other cultures, such as Asian cultures different to those who are exposed to similar cultures.

My best friend is Vietnamese and it’s through her and her family that I have had the chance to be exposed to a lot more Asian media and customs than I would have been exposed to if we hadn’t become friends in High School. I remember once, she got be a Japanese Candy Kit (this one in particular was called Kracie Happy Kitchen), where you mix powder and water together and it makes mini food! I was honestly amazed. It tasted like an actual burger!! What the heck! I had never been exposed to this kind of thing before. Italians only had pasta and home made focaccia (hello, I was not complaining) but I was honestly amazed by this little contraption and wanted more.

I’m so excited to explore more into Asian Cultures. I am excited to create short videos of myself reacting to the types of products like the ones above, but also beauty related products such as the bubble mask (how cool!!). I think that Asian cultures can come up with a lot of cool products and I am definitely keen to check them out!