Whenever I search for an option about anything, it is often the case that I will pick the most obscure or the least effective. When choosing my A’ levels, despite what people were telling me, I went with three sciences, chemistry, physics and biology and failed at all of them gaining a miserable D grade across the board. At the time of making the decision, I am not sure what I was actually thinking but while re-examining it from a distance, I think it was because I wanted to be different. I disregarded the ‘common’ triplets to pick something that everyone would be making suitably impressed noises at. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and I recognise now that it was a poor decision, but it would appear that I haven’t really learnt from this. And so, as I sit down in front of a range of research strategies I am drawn to the unusual and maybe most contended.
Self Reflection and Autoethnography
All about me…
You might have noticed that I like to blog and, throughout the posts, I am using the first person. Being a practitioner means that I consider myself as a reflective person. I like to look back at situations and see if I can learn from them. Because of this, I was drawn to a strategy for researching which appeared, initially, to be connected to this and my blogging style. However, just like my poor A’ level choices, it seemed that there was considerable discussion around the authenticity of the method. So with a deep breath, I started to read about autoethnography.
Rather than presenting an overview of autoethnography itself, I present this post as a map of my learning journal. Starting with ethnography, traversing through netnography to arrive, eventually, at autoethnography and you are welcome to accompany me on my journey.
From my three science A’ levels I went on to study Environmental Studies and Social Biology for my degree. It should be quite obvious from these choices that I am more of a number person rather than words. This is also reflected in the work I do as I continue to teach, but in higher education, where I mainly engage with mathematics and technology. Numbers lack the ambiguity of words. They are simple, straight forward and, in my brain, uncomplicated. I feel safe with numbers, easy to write, to use and to interpret.
According to Denscombe (2014), ethnography literally means a description of people and cultures and was initially used by social anthropologists. With the word ‘description’ being used, I suddenly found myself heading down a qualitative research method with Hammersley (2006) referring to it as a specific qualitative method. Fearing the loss of my comfortable scenario of quantitive data, I was ready to leave ethnography at this point so was relieved to see that Hammersley does continue the definition to say that sometimes quantitive data can be included. This is further supported by Cohen, Manion and Morrison (2014) who states that ethnography moves beyond the description of data analysis and focuses on not only the what but also the explanation of the why.
This allowed me to feel slightly more secure within the research strategy. I feel comfortable with data although maybe this strategy was encouraging me to move away from this secure zone into a more qualitative strategy. Maybe, despite my doubts, words might be more suitable for me rather than numbers?
It was while I was reading about this description of cultures that I discovered a form of ethnography which certainly made me feel very secure…virtual ethnography.
It is quite reassuring when I read or see sections within books that relate to the internet or virtual worlds. It always seems to be the case that people are recognising the changes which are occurring in the social world, often accompanying these statements with images of previous generations fondly playing outside getting covered in mud or riding around on bikes. But it is always refreshing to see methods or approaches changing in order to accommodate the changing social world which we live in. O’Reilly (2009) starts her chapter on Virtual Ethnography by stating that as new technologies impact on our daily lives there needs to be some attention given to this by the ethnographers.
Wikipedia presents the definition of Netnography, a single word often used to represent Virtual Ethnography, as,
an online research method originating in ethnography which is applied to understanding social interaction in contemporary digital communications contexts.Netnography Wikipedia
While anthropologists are focusing on ‘real-life’ communities and social interaction, Rheingold’s (1993) research shows that online groups can and do form virtual communities. Spending some time existing as part of online communities associated either with gaming or live streaming, this came as no surprise to me. If anything it gave me some academic support to the thoughts I often have relating to the difference in learning between academic communities and gaming communities. It would appear that there is actually a research method which would allow me to utilise with the latter.
Although netnography has had books written about it, I think it would be probably accepted within the research world. The method that I was drawn to, appears to have less of a positive reputation. Indeed while watching a video about it on YouTube from 2014 one of the comments really was, well, unpleasant;
Autoethnography = academic fraud This is pure tripe!
Source: YouTube Comment
I actually have a definition of autoethnography up on my whiteboard in my office. I’m not sure where this originates from (probably Wikipedia…sorry);
Autoethnography is a form of qualitative research in which an author uses self-reflection and writing to explore their personal experience and connects this autobiographical story to wider cultural, political and social meanings and understanding.
At this point, I need to express a concern relating to my spell checker and Gammarly, since both are arguing with me that autoethnography needs to be hyphenated, although I am loathed to add that small dash!
Self-reflection is something which I hold in very high regards, especially when trying to improve. Often practitioners can be overly self-reflective which borders on the detrimental, but generally, it is a positive skill to have. One reason I write blogs is to reflect on my thoughts. When I pass away, and I hope that this is not soon, I’m going to have to leave in my will the password to my blogs so people can read everything I reflected on in the form of a blog post but never actually published. Something for you all to look forward to!
While reading about autoethnography, there instantly seemed to be two differing viewpoints, well three if you want to include the ‘tripe’ comment from earlier. Anderson (2006) promotes the idea of analytic autoethnography with the emphasis, among other aspects, on the commitment to theoretical analysis. Waving from the other side of the separating chasm are Ellis and Bochner (2006) who argue for an evocative and emotionally engaged approach. Chang (2008) suggests the difference between these two approaches rest in the war between objectivity and subjectivity.
I do feel that there has to be a theoretical basis for most research, but it is intriguing to see an approach which is based on emotion and evocation. Since autoethnography is a research method based on ‘self’ then it would appear to be more appropriate to have its emphasis on the accounts and subjective reflections. It quickly becomes apparent why this might be recognised as a less ‘scientific method’ but from a post-modernistic viewpoint, perhaps this is more acceptable.
So where does this leave me? Well, you might recall my ‘insect will rule’ scenario from a previous post which exemplifies my ability to go for the less known and more ‘out there’ theories. I’m sure the approach of autoethnography appeals to me not only because of the controversy relating to its approach but also the way it appears to be aligned to the self-reflection. I like writing a narrative, much like this blog post, and the two, blogging and autoethnography, appears to have some, well, ‘cross over’ points. I’m not for one minute suggesting that my reflective blogs fall completely within the remit of the autoethnography approach but I get a distinct feeling that they are not that far apart. And, if I am correct in that assumption, then I might have just found the research method I have been looking for for some time.
Anderson, L. (2006) Analytic Autoethnography Journal of contemporary Ethnography 35 (4) pp 373 – 399
Chang, H. (2008) Autoethnography as Method London, Routledge.
Cohen, L, Manion, L. and Morrison, K. (2014) Research Methods in Education London, Routledge
Denscombe, M. (2014) The Good Research Guile- for small-scale social research projects Maidenhead McGraw Hill
Ellis, C.S. and Bochner, A.P. (2006) Analyzing analytic autoethnography. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 35 (4) pp 429-449
Hammersley, M. (2006) Ethnography: problems and prospects Journal Ethnography and Education 1(1) pp 3-14
O’Reilly K., (2009) Key concepts in ethnography London, Sage.