An Autoethnography on Autoethnography

Autoethnography is one of my favourite kinds of words. It’s a portmanteau. Think Brangelina or sexting. A portmanteau is a new word made by combining two existing words. In the case of autoethnography, it’s made up of the words autobiography and ethnography, and in order to understand what these two words mean together, we must first understand them separately.

Autobiography usually involves the author’s reflection on personal past experiences. It is written retroactively and selectively (Ellis, Adams & Bochner 2010). Autobiographies are usually written in a narrative style, and attempt to convey ‘lessons’ the authors has learnt through past experiences. Autobiographies are extremely subjective. They are less about telling exactly what happened, and more about expressing how experiences made the author feel.

Ethnography on the other hand, is the study of “a culture’s relational practices, common values and beliefs, and shared experiences” (Ellis, Adams & Bochner 2010). Instead of telling one person’s story, ethnography attempts to provide information about a group or culture. Ethnographic research is usually carried out through participant observation (Ellis, Adams & Bochner 2010), where the researcher places themself within a culture in order to get a first hand experience.

Autoethnography combines both autobiography and ethnography in order to become something even more than both. Autoethnography recognises “the impossibility of and lack of desire for master, universal narratives” (Ellis, Adams & Bochner 2010) and instead embraces an author’s personal biases. Autoethnography combines the professionalism and analysis of ethnography, and the narrative and personal reflection of autobiography to create “meaningful, accessible, and evocative research grounded in personal experience”.

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My first memory of noticing this style of research – although I didn’t know what it was at the time – was Melissa Anelli’s novel ‘Harry, A History’ (2008). ‘Harry, A History’ is about the fan culture surrounding the “Harry Potter’ franchise. The book details a cultural event spanning many years, as well as describing Anelli personal experiences and feelings. I think I was around 13 when I first read this book, but I’ll never forget the section detailing the 9/11 terrorist attack. Although it had nothing to do with the Harry Potter phenomena, it was an important event shaping America and particularly Anelli’s own experiences around that time. The book combined personal anecdotes and feelings, as well as a thorough examination of a culture. It was informative and well research, but also entertaining and compelling. It was a good book, because although I may not remember every fact, I remember the story, and how it made me feel.

Good autoethnography combines research with stories, to create something larger than it’s parts. It informs but also entertains, and most importantly, it is honest in its intentions.

 


 

References

Anelli, M 2008, Harry, A History: The True Story of a Boy Wizard, His Fans, and Life Inside the Harry Potter Phenomenon, Simon and Schuster.
Ellis, C, Adams, TE & Bochner, AP 2010, ‘Autoethnography: An Overview’, Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, vol. 12, no. 1, viewed 11 August 2017, <http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/1589&gt;.
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