SSW 04: Auto-ethnography

Site and Subjective Writing (SSW)

04.10.2010 15 - 17 : SSW Session 04: AUTO-ETHNOGRAPHY


Creative analytical practices

“Richardson (2000b) observes that the narrative genres connected to ethnographic writing have “been blurred, enlarged, altered to include poetry [and] drama..

She uses the term 'creative analytical practices' to describe these many reflexive performance narrative forms, which include

not only performance autoethnography
but also short stories,
fiction, creative nonfiction,
photographic essays, personal essays,
personal narratives of the self,
writing-stories, self-stories,
fragmented or layered texts,
critical auto-biography, memoir, personal histories,
cultural criticism, co-constructed performance narratives,
and performance writing, which blurs the boundaries seperating text, representation, and criticism.

In each of these formas the writer-as-performer is self-consciously present, morally and politically self-aware.

The writer uses his or her own experiences in a culture 'reflexively to bend back on self and look more deeply at self-other interactions'”

(Denzin, 2003: 14-15)


Auto-ethnography as a branch of research

“Auto-ethnography is a research approach that privileges the individual. It is an artistically constructed piece of prose, music or piece of art work that attenmps to portray an individual experience in a way that evokes the imagination of the reader, viewer or listener.

While I strongly support the idea that individual experiences are a legitimate source of data, I hesitate to call it a research method, as there are in fact many ways of including these experiences in the research process.

In Wolcott's depiction of qualitative research as a tree, he portrays the various branches of qualitative reseach as strategies from which a variety of smaller branches spread out (Wolcott, 2001: 90)

Ethnography and its subsidiary forms he locates in what he labels 'Participant Observation Strategies'.

The autoethnographer perches comfortably upon this branch. Not only is the individual a participant in the social context in which their experience takes place, but they are also an observer of their own story and its social location.

While the branches of the tree are important conveyers of nutriants to the smaller twigs and leaves, an important aspect of the tree is buried underground. The life-sustaining roots that reach down into the fertile underworld might be likened to the unconscious mind that directs and checks our every action.

Wolcott reminds us that we do not necessarily need to know who planted the tree or how it evolved, but we do need to be secure in the position from which we do our viewing.”

(Muncey, 2010: 2)

Observing Participation

A branch in another direction from Participant Observation..

is 'observing participation',

It was described in detail by Marek M. Kaminski,

who explored prison subculture being a political prisoner in communist Poland in 1985.

"Observing" or "observant" participation has also been used to describe fieldwork in sexual minority subcultures by anthropologists and sociologists who are themselves lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender;

The different phrasing is meant to highlight the way in which their

partial or full membership in the community/subculture

that they are researching both allows a different sort of access to the community

and also shapes their perceptions in ways different from a full outsider.


“I define this particular research role, in contrast to participant observation, with two conditions:

(a) OP enters a community through a similar social process as its other members and is subject to similar rules;

(b) OP undertakes field research as if he or she was a researcher.

An ideal OP lives through his/her social role, impassively registers randomly generated personal experience, and applies available data gathering techniques”

(Kaminski, 2004: 8)

Epistemology of Participation versus Observation

“A participant or a participating observer may gather useful data when more formalized methods of data collection are not available or provide unreliable output.

A participant perceives his world differently than a participating observer perceives the domain of his study.

Differences in beliefs, access to information, and attitudes of these two related roles lead to role-specific epistemological deformations.

Such typical deformations are briefly characterized below.

A participant is personally interested in his story.

He avoids topics that are inconvenient for him and “forgets” embarrassing facts.

A political prisoner emphasizes his own heroism against an unjust regime.
A criminal prisoner claims innocence against an unjust court.

Both of them believe, after Solzhenitsyn, Bukovsky, and others, that “only a prisoner will understand another prisoner.”

In otherwords, a typical inmate hardly considers his prison experience to be inter-subjectively communicable.

He rarely applies any standardized techniques of data gathering.
Instead, he focuses on anecdotes and interprets events through his own experience.

A participant observer lacks the sense of real-life pressure participants experience.

He is not as affected emotionally by the events as a participant.
He lacks experiences that can stimulate one’s understanding of insiders’ problems.

In prison, such experience includes the stress of being arrested, interrogated, or transferred to another prison.

He may be unaware that inmates use incredibly ingenious techniques to decipher squealers and that such techniques are applied routinely to newbies.

Inmates may check his background, his papers and timing of various events, his contacts in his previous prisons and in the “freedom world,” and where he lived and worked.

They monitor his in-cell and out-of-cell activities.
Most likely, he will be deciphered in a matter of minutes in a new cell.

There is an interesting correlation here:

One can learn most from those inmates who are most likely to decipher him.

Despite all of my precautions, I was “deciphered” twice by my cellmates as a “sociologist who takes notes and does research in prison.”

In one case, a beating followed.

All that occurred despite the fact that I was a true inmate, that my research was only a by-product of my role, and that I knew both the argot and prison norms well.”

(Kaminski, 2004: 8-9)


“My data sources can be sorted into a few categories:

(i) Living through various inmate roles;
(ii) Informal evening tea chats;
(iii) Secret code training of grypsmen candidates;
(iv) Informal conversations with inmates, typically face-to-face;
(v) Prison artifacts such as pictures, songs, letters, and hand-made products;
(vi) The memoirs and written relations of political and criminal prisoners and conversations with former political prisoners;
(vii) Underground Solidarity research reports on prisons and uncensored Warsaw University working papers and officially released statistical data.”

(Kasminski, 2004: 9)

This may be abstracted as following:

Observing Participant data sources came from:

(i) Living through various roles
(ii) Informal collective social conversations
(iii) Specialist knowledge embedded in role
(iv) Informal face-to-face individual conversations
(v) Artefacts such as images, oral forms such as songs, letters, hand-made objects
(vi) Artefacts from related scenes or contexts at other times/places
(vii) Other research or official documents/statistics related to context


“I went through the social roles of rookie (twice), humiliated rookie, potential sucker, aproposman, grypsman, 7 self-injury expert, faker, and tough political prisoner.

Among the major inmate roles that I did not experience were fag, squealer, corridorman, elder, fuss-master, cat, and jumper.”
(Kaminski, 2004: 11)

Kaminski used his own personal experience “as a valuable source of unique data rather than a starting point for reflection or existential speculation.”

(Kaminski, 2004: 15)


Where does Auto-ethnography emerge from?

“I rarely come across people who set out to do autoethnography but I do rather meet many people who resort to it as a means of getting across intangible and complex feelings and experiences that somehow can't be told in conventional ways, or because the literature they are reading is not telling their story.

In this journey of discovery some feel they make a breakthrough in conveying 'lived experience' when they discover Phenomenology; but even this attempt to portray meaningful life experiences they feel compelled to 'bracket' their own experience” [in keeping with Husserl's (1970) advice]

Take a leap: “there is no distinction between doing research and living a life”.. “the autoethnographer is both the researcher and the researched”…

“None of us live in a disconnected world. We are surrounded by people, live at a particular point in history, have jobs and hobbies that unite us and dreams and experiences that seperate us. In all these influences on our lives none are perhaps more important than individuals – individuals who have inspired us, given birth to us, made us angry or even changed the course of our lives; among all these influences are the makings of our stories.”

(Muncey, 2010: 3)

Muncey notes the gap between experience of living a normal life and public narratives being offered to give sense to that life.

“Public narratives include the success and necessity of the family, when most people know of the difficulties and misery that family life entails.. The public narratives about teenage pregnancy focus on moral decline, inadequate knowledge about contraception and sexual relationships, failing to mention the possible links with child abuse (Muncey, 1998c).

These public narratives are often contained within research adn the missing stories trapped in the 'empty space' are deemed too subjective or too self-indulgent to report.”

Introduction summary:

“We are observers and participants of our own experiences: you cannot separate who you are from what you do.

Understanding individuals is more than just a consideration of deviant cases, it can shed light on the silant majority of people whose individual voices are unheard

Subjectivity doesn't infect your work, it enhances it. Making links between your own experience and your work is healthy.

Official stories can be at odds with individual stories, whereas core beliefs or experiences can permeate every aspect of our lives.

Experiences are not frozen in time but grow and develop and therefore need creative devices for capturing growth.

Authoethnographies are characterised by artistically constructed pieces of 'text' that evoke the imagination and increase the reader's understanding.”

(Muncey, 2010: 8)


What makes personal worlds?

Personal world: “subjective awareness of oneself as a persona nd the overall pattern of personal life experiences. These experiences need to be considered in relation to aspects of self, world, experience of self and world, and the ways in which we organise experience and actions.”

(Muncey, 2010: 12)

“To most of us, our self image is a combination of whom we see in the mirror and the interaction of our physical, social, psychological and emotional sense of well-being in respect of that image..

Romanyshyn (1982, p.10) said that 'stories about oneself are episodic, tiny fragments taken from the continous flow, overlaid with emotion and half buried in stages of consciousness making reality an indefinable concept'..

The figure in our story can be construed as the culmination of, and glimpse into, all the fleeting traces of our experience, mirrored in our consciousness..

In order to understand individuals, it seems important to think about how they see themselves, what impression these particular reflections leave.

Our particular sense of self comes from a combination of our biological flow, our social context, our bodily awareness and our specific consciousness. We are aware that an important part of the self is a private, inner wold of thoughts, feelings and fantasies which we only share if we choose to.

We recognise a continuity from our younger selves but there is also a sense that we aare continually renewed. Because of our capacity for reflexivity [turning back], we recognise the self of our experience and the self as others see us.”

(Muncey, 2010: 11)

“The variety of situations and people we encounter can lead us to feel that we inhabit multiple worlds. The self may appear to be a unifying feature but, depending on the context, we can exhibit and/or experience a different form of our personal world”

(Ibid.: 13)


Notes to be added later about ebodiment, emotions, physical environment, social context, sense of self & agency, Muncey's 'The Journey' example.


“Specific consciousness and multiple worlds: the self is a collection of everchanging experiences tied together by such relationships as a physical body and a memory.

Time and space: all narrative will represent a flow of experiences, actions and events, a distillation of life so far couple with an anticipation of the future

Embodiment: our sense cannot function independently of our bodies.

Emotions: emotions exist in the body both as informational chemicals and also in another realm where we experience feeling and inspiration beyond the physical.

Physical environment: sensory qualities form an intrinsic part of the personal experience.

Social context: other people play influential roles in our narrative and some come to be associated with a dominant value system.

Sense of self and agency: the western view of self is not homogeneous and varies among other things with gender and ethnicity; but the idealised self is consistantly portrayed as autonomous and unrelated, with self-fulfilment and authenticity as key values.

Values and search for meaning: coherence and meaning are found in reflection.

Reflexiveness: multiple identities and reflexivity give us the capacity for empathy and entry into another's world of meaning.


Self is a process not a structure, The process of becoming is always in motion. Any evocation of an experience is always incomplete and in transition, and at best can only be described as a snapshot.

The self, the individual, is a highly reflexive, historically positioned entity, who attempts to engage in meaningful relationships with their culture, their society and other individuals. Like an iceberg, only a fraction of them is visible and authoethnography attempts to increase the visibility to provide a wider range of stories for individuals to connect with.

Authoethnographies need to be organised around certain features: portrayal of the self, one's positioning in the world, the interaction of the experience of self in a particular world, the interaction of the experience of self in a particular world and the ways in which we come to organise experience and our actions.

If consciousness is not a direct copy of the world then metaphor is an excellent vehicle for unfolding experience.”

(Muncey, 2010: 13)


NB/ More notes to be added here soon, about ebodiment, emotions, physical environment, social context, sense of self & agency, Muncey's 'The Journey' example.


What is Autoethnography: Making Sense of Individual Experiences

NB/ More notes to be added here soon, relating to origins in social science..


Muncey was suggested to think of herself as a “Contextually-sensitive researcher.. The one thing that unites.. eclectic range of research approaches is that the research question should direct the method by which the study is carried out. No single method fits all”

(Muncey, 2010: 49)


“Social science researchers think they know something about society worth telling to others.

All research that involves people is messy.

Positioning oneself in the genre should include a consideration of the thinking in the field.

Definitions of authoethnography question among many other things the idea of multiple layers of consciousness, the vulnerable self, the coherent self, critiquing the self in social-contexts, subversion of dominant discourses and evocative potential.

Bakhin can provide a satisfactory philosophy for uniting art and science in a human science,

Auto-ethnographers are broadly divided between two poles: those of analytical or evocative autoethnography.

Auto-ethnography distances itself from the misery memoir.”

(Muncey, 2010: 49-50)


Planning an auto-ethnographic account

Creative writing strategies..

Muncey writes:

“Richardson (2001, p.35) states that 'writing is a method of discovery, a way of finding out about yourelf and your world'.

It is intensely personal, takes lots of practice and continually evolves. If it is to be used to convey something of oneself to a stranger, then writing tactics are required to evoke the researcher's vurnerable self.

This involves techniques for releasing creativity and stimulating the imagination.”

(Muncey, 2010: 55)


that capture episodes of life like stills in a frame, as a memory teaser.

“Visual imagery can be a useful adjunct to autoethnographies but the selection of snapshots is not without its problems. To what extent do images portray a 'truth' beyond the written text and do you agree with Kompf (1999) that:

'Life is not how it is or how it was, but rather how it is interpreted, reinterpreted, told and retold. It is the story of our lives that we narrate to ourselves in episodic, sometimes semi-conscious, virtually uninterupted monologue. A photo does not represent a vaccation, a story about me doesnt not represent me… they are memory teasers' (Kompf, 1999: 12)”

(Muncey, 2010: 57)


“You are surrounded by artefacts that have degrees of significance in your life..

all these artefacts can help to stimulate the imagination for writing about experience.”

(Ibid.: 58)


can generate new ways of thinking.

'Found poetry', a form of poetry that is co-constructed from words or phrases found in particular contexts..

Can work in the same way that artefacts surrounding oneself could help as stimulus.

(Ibid.: 59)


“their usefulness is that they can be extended and changed to provide a different way of viewing the world. If arguments are a dance, then we can learn new steps or learn a new dance or change partners. If arguments are a war, the winning is important, going for the kill and counter-attacking, from which is
very difficult to back down.”

(Ibid.: 61)

'The Journey'

common metaphor in research, to describe a period of discovery or a process of learning.

“I think a great deal of research is like the commuter's journey: a predictable shuffle between expected destinations, with safety and comfort that desired outcome but with no hint of adventure.

Auto-ethnography could be likened to an adventure; setting off with a map and compass and some understanding of the territory but not hidebound by expectations or predictability.”

(Muncey, 2010: 63).


'The Body'
'The Garden'
'The Place'
'Cut up/Random sort technique'
'Windowsill of life'


CREATIVE WRITING EXERCISE: Self- Site-specific Memories / 'The Place'

What are the goals:

  • To gain some experience in creative writing prompt exercises
  • To involve many senses and perspectives in self & site-based memories

Social matrix:

  • eg. Individual work


30 mins


  • None needed except paper/notebook & writing/typing tool

Introduction (5 mins)

  • This will be a step by step creative writing exercise exploring a place and your memories attached. It was experienced by Andrew Paterson in a creative workshop led by Scottish poet & novelist Jackie Kay in Middlesborough in 01.2004.

Activity (? mins)

  1. Think about an experience situationed in a particular place you wish to write a memory/text about. Consider maybe a recent experience related to a project.


  1. Describe what you see at this place
  2. Look up, describe what you can see
  3. Look down, maybe you have zoom
  4. Imagine yourself doing something, an action there
  5. What does this action look like/how you might describe what you are doing
  6. Imagine your body in this place, what it might be like, feels like
  7. Is there any noise, or sound in this place
  8. Are there any smells in this place
  9. How about sense of touch, is there something you touch
  10. Are there any surprises encountered
  11. Then you are leaving, how is this happening, how do you leave


Making Sense of Auto-ethnographic texts

NB/ More notes coming here soon

“Producing text for an audience will always invite critical review

Methodological issues to be dealt with include the legitimacy of this approach and the sub-headings of truth, memory, self-indulgence.
Personal issues to be dealt with include self-preservation, hurtful reviews and retorts of lying.

Resonance is an appropriate criterion for evaluation and this can only be acheived by connecting with the audience through reading, performance or critical review…

Reviewers can become part of the text, just as supervisors write themselves into every thesis, albeit often quite silently.

Imaginative ability can be the route to other's world of meaning.

The self as containment is a myth that pervades science.

Common sense is an illusion with reality, as much a quality of mind as it is of matter; self-indulgence or something more.

Authoethnography requires strategies that use descriptive and evocative detail.

Coherence, verisimilitude and interest are literary devices for judging the quality of a piece of writing.

In consideration of the legitimatation of knowledge it is not what is true or not true, but how decisions are made and who makes them.

The analysis and interpretation of autoethnographic texts require the reader to utilise a broader range of analytical skills than those used for other research methods, such as linguistic, semantic, and aesthetic analysis and literary criticism.

Memory is not complete, static and accurate record of the past. It is dynamic and shaped by expectancies, needs and beliefs, imbued with emotion, and enriched by the inherently human capacity for narrative creation.

Memory is not all in the mind. Embodiment refers to the absorbtion of traces of experience throughout the body.

Ethics is a continually negotiable set of responsibilities between the author and the story and the author and the reader.”

(Muncey, 2010: 107-108)


References shared in this session:

Denzin, Norman K. (2003). Performance Ethnography: critical pedagogy and the politics of culture. London: Sage Publications.

Kaminski, Marek M. (2004), Games Prisoners Play, Princeton University Press, New Haven

Kompf, M. (1999). '”There is more to me than my story…” Examinations of what narrative researchers leave behind', paper presented in the 9th biennial meeting of the International Study Association on Teachers and Teaching, St. Patrick's College, Dublin, July.

Richardson, Laurel. (2000b). 'Writing: A method of inquiry' In Handbook of Qualitative Research, 2nd ed., Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln (eds.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Richardson, Laurel. (2001). 'Getting personal: Writing-stories. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 14(1), 33-8.

Muncey, Tessa. (2010). Creating Autoethnographies. London: Sage Publications.

Wolcott, H. F. (2001). Writing up Qualitative Research (2nd edition). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

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