Autoethnography Stretches Out

Categories: Qualitative

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When and why might we use autoethnographic methods? The “auto“ prefix might lead us to believe they are useful only when we are studying our own experiences—akin to memoir or autobiography. This orientation to self would rule out using autoethnography in the kinds of studies generally approved by academic departments or funders. However, contemporary qualitative researchers are questioning such constrictions and stretching autoethnographic methods to encompass studies of groups and organizations, as well as individuals.

From this perspective, autoethnography seeks to balance ethnographic methods for looking outward at a stories from beyond one’s own world, and critical reflection for looking inward to understand a story of one’s self (Kawalilak & Groen, 2016; Schwandt, 2007). Autoethnographic researchers aim to use close examination of their own experiences to generate insights about the larger culture or society (Lewis-Beck, 2004). Three recent articles by Sanne Frandsen (2015), Colleen Kawalilak and Janet Groen (2016), and Robin Grenier and Joshua Collins (2016), demonstrate new ways to think about autoethnographic approaches as a critical integration of the inward and outward gaze. These researchers variously synthesized perspectives of the researcher, observations of social, organizational or cultural contexts, and others’ voices.


This series of posts focuses on the how of research by exploring emergent methods and new approaches to data collection, analysis, and/or theory-building. In our changing world, intriguing questions abound. Some researchers pursue new questions using conventional methods and paradigms. Other researchers use their inquiries to push the boundaries on research methods and theoretical frameworks, as well as on the topics, questions, or settings they study. They may cross or meld disciplinary perspectives, using approaches into new contexts. They might borrow methods from different paradigms and find the squishy places between the thinking and practice of qualitative and quantitative research. Let’s explore exemplars from current journals to see how researchers set aside methodological parameters in today’s research.

Frandsen wanted to understand ways E-rail workers were reacting to bad publicity about their service and reports of customer dissatisfaction. She argued that a variation of autoethnography that incorporated her own subjective experience, as well as multiple voices of the workers, was appropriate when studying people working in public entities such as E-rail (p. 173).

Frandsen based her approach on a definition drawn from Chang (2008) that suggests autoethnography does not rely on reflections of “on self alone, but about searching for an understanding of others (culture/society) through self” (p. 49). The researcher places the self-narrative into its social context, thus meshing micro-level observations and experiences with macro-level theorizing, to understand a social context (Frandsen, 2015, p. 173). To do so, she engaged reflexively in the research setting, and also conducted interviews, observed meetings, and collected documents such as corporate information material, PowerPoint presentations, employee magazines, and union newsletters.  (p. 166). Frandsen placed reflective narrative into the larger social context. She was able to gain knowledge about organizational phenomena that might have been difficult to uncover with other methods: the rise of organizational paranoia after a spate of bad press (p. 174).

While Frandsen included other voices by conducting interviews, Kawalilak and Groen shared stories with each other in a collaborative approach to autoethnography. A museum exhibit about war brides allowed these two researchers to connect their respective “lifelong learning narratives with the narratives of our parents and… receive a powerful reminder that we learn in multiple ways, dimensions, and in the most unexpected ways” (Kawalilak & Groen, 2016, p. 153). Kawalilak and Groen each engaged in her own autoethnographic inquiry, which was spurred on and deepened through exchange. Their process included private reflection, journaling, coming together to share reflections, and engaging in dialogue to support deeper meaning-making of our experiences (p. 160.) They read narratives out loud to each other, allowing for a free flow of emotions associated with the stories to be shared. They felt this immediate form of exchange allowed for meaningful exchange not possible by simply reading another’s account. These exchanges pointed to new discoveries, which were contemplated individually in the next iteration of reflective writing. The purpose of this inquiry was personal for these researchers. Since Kawalilak and Groen are both educators, they position the significance of their research in the context of adult learning. They suggest that this kind of deep learning and knowledge co-creation in conjunction with historical exhibits might be encouraged by museum curators and educators.

Like Kawalilak and Groen, Grenier and Collins see the value of engaging the other in autoethnography. They point out that autoethnography has been criticized for being less than scholarly, overly subjective, and perhaps even self-indulgent. They wanted to address these limitations because methodologies that invite deep personal understandings and sense-making of social and cultural   phenomena are needed. Their article describes variations on traditional notions of autoethnography that involve collaborative or multi-researcher approaches much like those used by Kawalilak and Groen (p. 363), guided methods that prompt participants to reflect and write (p. 364), and narrative methods that focus on participants’ stories (p. 364). Based on their exploration of these approaches Grenier and Collins suggest using a methodological framework that melds existing narrative methods—autoethnography, guided autobiography, and narrative inquiry—into a new, emerging methodology which they term facilitated autoethnography (FAE).

FAE brings together two people. First is the person with the experience and story to share, whom we call the lead. The lead is similar to a participant in traditional qualitative studies. They come to the process with a story and insights derived from that experience, and with an understanding of other players in the story and the situational context. The other is a researcher committed to guiding the process, a person whom we call the facilitator. The facilitator does not add data (their own story) to the research, but instead brings skills in methodology, theory application, and writing, and acts as a critical listening ear as the lead describes, analyzes, and interprets their own story. (Grenier & Collins, 2016, p. 366)

Grenier and Collins differentiate FAE from other narrative forms of inquiry, perhaps most importantly in the roles and power dynamics between the FAE researcher and participant. They intend for the lead (participant) to hold the power to determine content and data while the facilitator (researcher) encourages the process and adds scholarly context (p. 369). The facilitator also challenges and critiques the narrative, in an effort to provide a broader interpretation of the narrative than would be possible in traditional autoethnography.

Grenier and Collins are particularly interested in using FAE to study people within organizations in the human resource development field. They see the potential for bringing forward otherwise untold and unheard narratives, “to give voice to those at the margins—  those whose experiences are counter to the organization’s majority—and then add that voice to existing scholarship” about organizational culture and change (p. 371). Grenier and Collins observe that people who are intimidated by other research methods are more willing to participate in FAE.

In today’s Big Data-centered world, autoethnography offers a deep dive into personal experiences. While some autoethnographers may still choose to focus entirely on individual perceptions, clearly there are other ways to use the methodology. These three studies show us ways to appreciate both the tensions and the learning that occur at the intersections of individual lives, institutions and organizations, and society at large.

One thought on “Autoethnography Stretches Out

  1. This is fascinating, and fits well with some research I am currently designing – thank you

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