SSW2 Session 05: Auto-ethnography part 1

Site and Subjective Writing (SSW)

20.02.2012 13 - 15 : SSW2 Session 05: Auto-ethnography part 1


Exercise: My last project and me

3-4 People at random will share their writing based on last week's exercise to reflect on the influences, ambitions and consequences of one's own 'latest' project.


Did you learn anything/something new about your project?
What are the consequences of this new perspective?


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)


Cultural Identity & Cultural membership

"Self-reflection can also be applied to the data collection of your cultural identities and group memberships.

The 'culture-gram', a web-like chart, is a tool that I [Chang] developed to help people visualise their social selves.

By completing the chart, you will be able to see your present self from multiple perspectives, in terms of social roles you play, people groups you belong to, diversity criteria by which you judge yourself, and primary cultural identities that you give yourself.

The 'culture-gram' contains different types, sizes, and shades of figures and lines connecting them. The figures are designated for four different types of information, and lines indicate connectivity among figures. All the figures connected by lines indicate they belong together in one category.

As you move your attention inward from the outer edge of the chart to the centre, I will explain the purpose of each figure."

(Chang, 2008: 97)

The *rectangles are reserved for categories corresponding to multiple realms of life*.

In [Chang's] teaching of multicultural education, she has used diversity dimensions for the rectangles, including nationality, race/ethnicity, gender, class, religion, language, profession, multiple intelligences, personal interests.

We in our course, could consider also skills, discipline, operating system.

Chang suggests that you may feel you dont need all the rectangles, but she suggests you fill as many as possible, as "by stretching your thoughts, you may discover hidden treasures about yourself".

Each rectangle is connected to a *shaded circle* in which you write down one most primary self-identifyer of yours in that specific dimension. The self-identifyer "indicates that you have knowledge, skills, competence, familiarity, or emotional attachement to function as a member of this group. This self-identifier is a subject labeling of yourself, based not on precise measurement but on personal perception and desire".

Fill in the *ovals* that are linked to the shaded circle with your secondary self-identifiers in the same dimension. Repeat the same with the other dimensions, so that they are all filled.

"At this point, your 'culture-granä displays implicitly and expliticly a colourful array of your life experiences, involvements, familiar groups, passions, and cultural competence..

Goodenough's (1976) claim that multiculturalism is the normal human experience [may] shine as a truth."

The final step is to fill the *centre circle* with three primary self-identities in order of importance to you.

"Although primary self-identities tend to be enduring and persistent over time, they are not always permanent fixtures in life. Some may remain steady, and others change depending on time, occasion, and context."

"The culture-gram activity is designed to assist data collection on your present perspective of who you are. However, it is not a simple go-and-gather-facts type of activity. Like other self-reflective data collection strategies, it requires self-reflection, self-evaluation, and self-analysis, which blend data collection with data analysis and interpretation..

Your culture-gram can also be used to identify others whom you usually distance yourself from, dislike, or oppose for various reasons."

(Chang, 2008: 97-100)


Exercise: Culture-gram reflection

Taken from Chang's Writing Exercise 6.4. (2008: 100)

What are the goals:

  • To chart and reflect upon cultural memberships, social groups and personal identifiers one relates with.

Social matrix:

  • eg. Individual work


30+30 mins


  • Prepare culture-gram sheets for each participant, copied from Chang (2008: 173) Appendix D

Introduction (10 mins)

  • If not already done, introduce Heewon Chang's culture-gram (2006),

Activity (30+30 mins)

part 1

  1. Complete the culture-gram template.

part 2

  1. Explain the three primary identities you selected and your reasons for these selections.
  2. Reflect on and write what you have learned about yourself through culture-gramming


References shared in this session:

Chang, Heewon (2008). Authoethnography as method. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press

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

Goodenough, W. (1976). Multiculturalism as the normal human experience. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 7(4), 4-7.

Goodenough, W. (1981). Culture, language and society. Menlo Park, CA: Benjamins/Cummings Publishing Company.

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

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.

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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