SSW2 Session 06: Auto-ethnography part 2

Site and Subjective Writing (SSW)

27.02.2012 13 - 15 : SSW2 Session 06: Auto-ethnography part 2

Exercise: Culture-gram reflection

3-4 People at random will share their writing based on last week's exercise to reflect on the culture-gram (Chang, 2006) they wrote about themselves.


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 and 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)


“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)


What is Autoethnography: Making Sense of Individual Experiences

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)


Other Post-colonial perspectives on Auto-ethnography

Mary Pratt in her book 'Imperial Eyes: travel writing and transculturation' presented a historical investigation into travel writing, and her choice of case-studies were shaped by a number of questions:

"With what codes has travel and exploration writing <i>produced</i> "the rest of the world" for European readerships at particular points in Europe's expansionist process?

How has it produced Europe's evolving conceptions of itself in relation to something it became possible to call "the rest of the world"?

How do the signifying practices of travel writing encode and legitimate the aspirations of economic expansion and empire?

At what points do they undermine those aspirations?

What did writers on the recieving end of European intervention do with those European codifications of their reality?

How did they claim, revise, reject and transcend them?

How have Europe's subordinated others shaped Europeans' constructions of them and the places they inhabit?

Or European's understandings of itself?"

(Pratt, 2008: 4)

"Contact Zones.. that is social spaces where disparate cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination - such as colonialism and slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out across the globe today.

People on the receiving end of European imperialism did their own knowing and interpretation.. using the European's own tools.

This is why the term transculturation appears in my title..

Ethnographers have used this term to describe how subordinated or marginal groups select and invent from materials transmitted to them by a dominant or metropolitan culture. While subjugated peoples cannot readily control waht the dominant culture visits upon them, they do determine to varying extents what they absorb into their own, how they use it, and what they make it mean. Transculturation is a phenomenon of the contact zones..

What do people on the receiving end of empire do with metropolitan modes of representation? How do they appropriate them? How do they talk back? What materials can one study to answer those questions?"

(Pratt, 2008: 7)

She considers the terms 'autoethnography' or 'autoethnographic expression'.

"in either form refers to instances in which colonized subjects undertake to represent themselves in ways that <i>engage with</i> the colonizers terms. If ethnographic texts are a means by which Europeans represent to themselves their (usually subjugated) other, autoethnographic texts are texts that others construct in response to or in dialogue with those metropolitan representations..

Autoethnographic texts differ from what are thought of as 'authentic' or autochthonous forms of self-representation.. [It] involves partly collaborating with and appropriating the idioms of the conqueror - e.g. alphabetic writing, Spanish language, the chronicle form, the line drawing.." transculturating them.

In case of Guaman Poma de Ayala, Andean writer in early 17th Century,

"autoethnography appropriates the idioms of travel and exploration writing, merging or infiltrating them to varying degress with indigeneous modes.

Often like Guaman Poma's manuscript example,

"it is bilingual and dialogic.

Autoethnographic texts are typically heterogeneous on the reception end as well.

That is, they are usually addressed both to metropolitan readers and to literate sectors of the speaker's own social group. They are bound to be received very differently by these different readerships. Often such texts constitute a group's point of entry into metropolitan lettered culture."

(Pratt, 2008: 9)


Shahram Khosravi, in his book 'Illegal' Traveller: An auto-ethnography of borders', makes references similar to Muncey, in that he recognises and quotes references that auto-ethnography..

"places the self within a social context" (Reed-Danahay 1997:9), "displays multiple layers of consciousness, connecting the personal to the cultural" (Ellis and Bochner 2000: 739), and asks its "readers to feel the truth of their stories and to become coparticipants engaging the storyline morally, emotionally, aesthetically, and intellectually" (Ellis and Bochner 2000: 745)

But his book

"is not an autobiography, but an ethnography of borders. Based on my own journey and my informants' border narratives, I will tell of the nature of borders, border politics, and the rituals and performances of border crossing.

Auto-ethnography lets migrants contextualize their accounts of the experience of migrant illegality. It helps us explore abstract concepts of policy and law and translate them into cultural terms grounded in everyday life..

Border stories reveal the interaction between agency and structure in migratory experiences. They offer a human portrait of 'illegal' travellers."

Khosravi writes that his book is

"the outgrowth of my own 'embodied experience of borders', of ethnographic fieldwork among undocumented migrants between 2004-2008, and of teaching courses on irregular migration and anthropology of borders. It also emerges from my activities outside of academia: freelance journalism, helping arrange events such as film festivals about border crossing, and volunteer work for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) helping failed asylum seekers and undocumented migrants in Sweden."

And that

"In my years as an anthropologist, I have been astonished at how my informants' experiences overlapped, confirmed, completed, and recalled my own experiences of borders. One interesting aspect of the auto-ethnographic text is that the distinction between ethnographer and 'others' is unclear. Similarities between informants' subjective experiences and my own blur the distinction between anthropologist and informants.

This challenges imposed identities and boundaries and offers forms of meaning alternative to the dominant discourse (Pratt 1992/2008).

Auto-ethnography links the world of the author with the world of others. It bridges the gap between the anthropologist's reality and the reality of others."

(Khosravi, 2011: 5)

"Studies of migrant illegality are often written by people who have never experienced it; my [Khosravi's] aim has been to offer an alternative, partly first-hand, account of unauthorized border crossing that attempts to read the world through 'illegal' eyes. I tell the story of those whose history has been crushed underfoot. Like [Walter] Benjamin, in his work on The Arcade Project, I am a 'ragpicker'. I pick up the refuse of history, gather all that is disregarded. Following Benjamin, I believe that 'waste materials are to enter into significant connections and fragmnets are used to gain a new perspective of history' (Benjamin 2007: 252-253). I collect stories of 'illegals': stateless people, failed asylum seekers, undocumented and unregistered people, those who are hidden and clandestine.

Like the <i>testimonios</i> in Latin America, a tradition that confers authority on subaltern voices (Warren 1997), this auto-ethnography gains its narrative power from the concept of witnessing. The significance of the voice of the witness is that the witness has been there, has seen what happened. Witnesses themselves lived the disaster, and might themselves be victims. They can retell the story and unfold the event with first-hand authority. This does not mean that witnesses, just because they are insiders, possess the only authentic approach. The witness's narrative is only one of many, albeit one less heard."

(Khosravi, 2011: 6)


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 yourself 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'


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 place-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 (20 mins)

  1. Think about a/the place where you made your last project (same one as 'my last project & me exercise)


  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

Discussion (15 mins)

What new insights do you have about the context of your project?


Making Sense of Auto-ethnographic texts

“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

Benjamin, Walter (2007). Walter Benjamin's Archive, New York: Verso.

Ellis, Carolyn and Bochner, Arthur P. (2000) Autoethnography, Personal Narrative, Reflexivity: Researcher as Subject, In Denzin, N. and Lincoln, Y. (eds) The Handbook of Qualitative Research, Thousand Oaks: Sage, 733-768.

Husserl, E. (1970) The Idea of Phenomenology. The Hague: Martinus Nijoff.

Khosravi, Shahram (2011). 'Illegal Traveller': An auto-ethnography of borders. Van Den Anker, C. (ed) Global Ethics Series. Bakingstoke: Palgrave-MacMillen

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

Pratt, Mary Louise (2008). Imperial Eyes: travel writing and transculturation. 2nd Edition. New York: Routledge

Reed-Danahay, Deborah (1997). Auto/Enthography: Rewriting the self and the social. Oxford: Berg

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

Warren, Kay B. (1997), Narrating Cultural Resurgence: Gender and self-representation for pan-Mayan writers. in Reed-Danahay, Deborah (ed.) Auto/Enthography: Rewriting the self and the social. Oxford: Berg

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

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