I’m standing very still. My toes are curled over a stone ledge, a gaping dark chasm below me. It is decision time. But which way to go?
I had been contemplating this decision for some months. Walk purposefully off into the darkness or carefully step backwards and take a more recognised and safer route to the next point in my research journey. Having a science degree, my research strategies should have been firmly entrenched in empirical data and scientific methods. But, for some time now I had been lured in a different direction. While reading about methodology I had come across autoethnography: a research method that focused on using self-reflection as the primary source of data, and the outcomes of which were shared in a self-narrative (Chang, 2008).
But I had concerns and even worries.
My reading about autoethnography brought me to articles reporting the struggles of researchers to get published and the negative feedback and even possible ridicule from reviewers: the ‘tuts’ of disgust and the suppressed giggles when mentioning the approach; the constant need to justify and produce additional evidence before academics would accept it as a valid research strategy (Holt, 2003). No doubt there are people out there who celebrate and welcome the approach, but as a new researcher these voices, mainly Ellis, Bochner and Chang (see for example Ellis & Bochner, 2000; Chang, 2008) appeared as solo evangelists of the method. Maybe there was a hidden society out there? A group of people who celebrated and supported the approach but did so from dark corridors and conferences in secret locations.
But despite this, I still clung to autoethnography.
One of the possible sources of data for the autoethnographer is self-reflection. As a teacher and educator, self-reflection is a skill that I have developed over decades. I am blessed with the ability to collate my thoughts and reflect on them, drawing meaning, seeing connections and even possible developments. From the thoughts and emotions that I write, I can see patterns and links to both theory and the experiences of other people in the same situation. Casual comments made between colleagues in corridors launch my brain into exploration mode, searching to see if I have experienced the same. I make connections between my reflections, emotions and the cultural setting where I work. I had read that exploring your own thoughts could not lead to concluding anything beyond yourself, but I found that this was not the case. I might be one person, but the community I was travelling in shared or opposed my own thoughts and this brought generalisations and commonality, and were, therefore, the basis of possible change and development.
And then there was the form of writing.
I am going to admit something now, although I feel that as a pseudo-academic I probably should not. Often after talking to fellow academics, I must search the internet to understand some of the vocabulary they have used. I even confess that when reading some of the titles of research articles I just have a look of complete confusion on my face because I have no understanding of what the article will be about! Maybe this is a strategy to keep knowledge and research firmly locked behind the closed doors of academia. Maybe this knowledge is only accessible to those who possess the key to a specific language and vocabulary; that golden key that will unlock the tome of harboured knowledge.
‘Maybe this academic knowledge is only accessible to those who possess the key to a specific language and vocabulary; that golden key that will unlock the tome of harboured knowledge.’
Autoethnography takes a different approach. Rather than being written in a language that needs to be deciphered, it embraces the narrative and shares findings in a similar way to how I am hopefully writing this blog post. The thought of making research more accessible to everyone is something that I want to achieve. I don’t want to hide my outcomes and discoveries behind the walls of academia whether these be walls of money or language. I want my research to be written and shared in a way that everyone can understand and empathise with.
But the decision is still before me. Will my use of autoethnography as a research strategy be accepted or merely tolerated? Do I share my findings using an accessible narrative style or bury them deep in academic vocabulary and language?
And so with a final deep breath and a slight smile on my face, I step out into the welcoming embrace of the darkness.
Chang, H. (2008). Autoethnography as method. Routledge.
Ellis, C., & Bochner, A. P. (2000). Autoethnography, personal narrative, reflexivity: Researcher as subject. In N. Denzin & Y. Lincoln (eds.), Handbook of Qualitative Research, 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks.
Holt, N. L. (2003). Representation, legitimation, and autoethnography: An autoethnography writing story. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 2(1) 18–28. https://doi.org/10.1177/160940690300200102