Notes on Autoethnography

Autoethnography: Part 01

I need to edit a paper to incorporate some of the reviewer comments, equally my designing educational inquiries course just began again this week, and one of my MEd students is running an autoethnographic project. So there are my three reasons for indulging in reading and writing again. This is a mere beginning. The background. My very personal understanding. The next part will include a Sketchnote from the Adams (2021) workshop referenced, and highly recommended to watch, below.

What is Autoethnography to you?

Autoethnography begins with a personal story.

(Wall, 2008, p.39)

To me autoethnography is writing through the ‘I’ for the ‘Other’. Most sources speak about characteristics such as the writer/researcher becomes the subject (Adams, 2021**)**, personal experience are used to explore wider societal issues (Ellis, 2004). The aspect that draws me most to autoethnography is that of storying the world—that emphasis on narrative for sense making (Herman, 2007; Richardson & St Pierre, 2015) ). Because academia is very good in sharing knowledge, but not so good in sharing knowing—this visceral, embodied, aisthetic experiencing of knowledge; something active learning approaches and creative pedagogies is trying to counteract. In terms of research autoethnography to me is a methodology of knowing. It challenges paradigms of knowledge, but it is also a methodology that can create knowledge as well as knowing through stories and multimodal forms of text.

Autoethnography encapsulates both storytelling and embodied learning shared through stories. After I wrote this sentence I was wondering: How to you speak of the body? How do you quantify visceral experience? And a memory resurfaced as explanation: during my undergraduate degree I took a course on East Asian philosophy (for fun because my alma mater permitted taking additional courses). We were learning about and engaging with koans. These are Zen Buddhist language puzzles—contemplating phrases (Foulk, 2000)—that were given to learners, and cannot be understood purely logically.

[Koan] as devices that are meant to focus the mind in meditation, to confound the discursive intellect, freezing it into a single ball of doubt, and finally to trigger an awakening (J. satori) to an ineffable state beyond the reach of all “dualistic” thinking. (Foulk, 2000, p.15)

Or to say it in a simpler way: they are meant to be understood through spirit and intuition (Kuruvilla, 2015). We were contemplating one such koan during class and I suddenly ‘got it’, felt its meaning, had the knowing of it, and I explained to the teacher but I could not hold that knowing in words for long—it fell apart.

This type of knowing is crucial for becoming an expert, think about a doctor who goes beyond the obvious diagnosis and finds a patient’s source for illness, think about a researcher having a hunch that leads through a breakthrough. In our Western culture we are beginning to bring the mind and body together again, in concepts such as embodied learning and teaching, neuro and cognition sciences are looking into the internal and external system within which the mind is situated (Herman, 2007), and even active learning recognises the significance of the learners situatedness beyond a cognitive engagement with learning content. Or as Helen Kara (2021) reminds us the personal is empirical.

Do you know the roots of the word ‘empirical’? It is derived from the Greek word ‘empeirikos’, meaning ‘experienced’. It means something verifiable by experiment or experience. So, the personal is empirical.

(Kara, 2021)

My students at this point would expect me to stop rambling and begin explaining how this actually works in an educational autoethnography. So I am enlisting some help from autoethnographers. Here we are learning that this methodology relates personal experiences to cultural context, and that they become the focal point of the inquiry (Duarte, 2007). The aspect that resonates most with my own experience is that the reader who engages with autoethnography becomes a co-participant (Richardson, 1994 in Walls, 2008).

Autoethnography is an ‘autobiographical genre of writing and research that displays multiple layers of consciousness, connecting the personal to the cultural’ (Ellis & Bochner, 2000, p. 739). It is part of a more recent style of anthropological practice known as ‘reflexive ethnography’ in which the researcher’s personal experience becomes the focus of inquiry, illuminating the culture under study. (Ellis & Bochner, 2000, p. 740).

(Duarte, 2007, p.2)

Ellis (1999) explained that in autoethnography the writer tells a story that allows readers to enter and feel part of a story that includes emotions and intimate detail and examines the meaning of human experience. Autoethnography is a form of writing that should allow readers to feel the dilemmas, think with a story rather than about it, join actively with the author’s decision points (Ellis & Bochner, 2000), and become co-participants who engage with the story line morally, emotionally, aesthetically, and intellectually (Richardson, 1994). In the world of traditional science objective distance seems to protect researchers and readers from the emotional and intimate details of human lives (Muncey, 2005).

(Walls, 2008, p.44)

A recent personal experience can shed some light on this effect. Reviewer one (yes, I know an outlier), has had a problem with my autoethnographic experimental piece of writing. Their response was emotional, it showed cognitive dissonance between finding resonance in my writing, but struggling because it breaks the expectation of scientific writing. The critique and major amendments would make my paper into something it was never meant to be, something entirely different. What stroke me most was that reviewer one clearly had negotiated with my writing, had strong emotional response to it—yet, failed to notice, that this exactly was the purpose of the writing; and their reaction the whole point of the paper. Yet, they wanted me to make it into something that doesn’t do this. So, if you are embarking in autoethnography. Ask yourself: what for am I doing this? You will always get the accusation of navel gazing, as if designing a questionnaire, based on an assumptive range of answers, biased by the researcher’s experience is anything but this. Autoethnography makes do without pretense. It can be raw. It is more personal than other forms of research. And it can challenge the reader and elucidate responses other forms of research would not.

So the first answer to how or why to use this in educational inquiries. Would be to explore the situatedness of the ‘I’ in teaching within its environment. Maybe explore how notions of decolonizing the curriculum, equity and accessibility impact on the acts and performances of teaching. How they impact on time and focus spend. On rethinking teaching content—maybe seeing the world anew? Or it could be something for a novice educator to explore the growing of confidence. The process of becoming and negotiating the complex tensions placed on academics in teaching roles.

All of this contextualised within the institution or culture can help other educators to learn to develop their practice, their knowing.

End of Part 1


Adams, T. (2021). (37) Tony Adams: “The Art of Autoethnography” – YouTube. Lancaster University Educational Research.

Bietti, L. M., Tilston, O., & Bangerter, A. (2019). Storytelling as Adaptive Collective Sensemaking. Topics in Cognitive Science, 11, 710–732.

Duarte, F. (2007). Using Autoethnography in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: Reflective Practice from “the Other Side of the Mirror.” International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learningijsotl, 1(2).

Ellis, C. (2004). The ethnographic I: A methodological novel about autoethnography. Rowman Altamira.

Foulk, T. G. (2000). The Form and Function of Koan Literature. . In S. Heine & D. S. Wright (Eds.), The Koan. Texts and Contexts in Zen Buddhism (pp. 15–45).

Herman, D. (2007). Storytelling and the Sciences of Mind: Cognitive Narratology, Discursive Psychology, and Narratives in Face-to-Face Interaction. Narrative, 15(3), 306–334.

Kara, H. (2021, January 14). The Personal Is Empirical | Helen Kara. Helenkara.Com.

Kuruvilla, C. (2015, October 31). These Zen Buddhist Koans Will Open Your Mind | HuffPost UK.

Richardson, L., Adams, E., & Pierre, S. (2015). 36 Writing: A Method of Inquiry. In The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology (pp. 1410–1444). Wiley Online Library.

Wall, S. (2008). Easier Said than Done: Writing an Autoethnography. In International Journal of Qualitative Methods (Vol. 7, Issue 1).

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