The Perils of Autoethnography

At least since Bochner’s turning-point essay, Narrative’s Virtues, it has been clear that the critics are wrong about autoethnography.1 No, it is not merely self-absorbed navel-gazing, and we all know it. It is a powerful form of evocative writing-as-inquiry that has generated big substantive change in qualitative inquiry across many methods and disciplines. The re-centering of what Ellis calls the Ethnographic I in qualitative human social research is nothing short of revolutionary.2

But in every critique there is a thread (or a glimmer) of truth.

One major peril of all academic work is the raw fact that our audiences are, largely, just us. Goodall was correct, I believe, in calling upon us to do better, extending our work as public intellectuals by reaching for audiences well beyond our own ivy-covered walls.3 By remaining a small, insular community, we run the risk of becoming irrelevant. So, although the self-absorption charge by the critics is absurdly harsh and patently unfair, they may have been onto something when they recognized, if only obliquely, that we might become irrelevant if we’re not vigilant. As Denzin has pointed out, this potential insularity is a problem not just for autoethnographers but for all qualitative researchers.4

The deeper perils of autoethnography in particular remain compelling. They include the chance that our work will be dismissed as hyper-emotional and not intellectually challenging or constructive. We also run the risk that, in the name of a powerful, striking, evocative, compelling, startling, disruptive story,5 we might sacrifice the chance, or abdicate our responsibility, to trace and develop the broader implications of our work, thus leaving our audiences wondering what (if anything) to do (other than feel) as a result of reading our work. Pathos (emotion) is beautiful, but it must be wed with logos (reason), ethos (credibility), and mythos (world-building story power) to be complete. Finally, writers focused on invoking the evocative or even critical autoethnographic voice may yet squander the opportunity to craft a civically engaged activist scholarship that calls readers to action to instantiate real change.

The evocative-emotional aspect of autoethnography is, therefore, both its strength and its weakness. We all know that a powerful, evocative, moving autoethnography is one of the best pieces of academic writing anyone can read. There is nothing quite like reading an autoethnography about a broken relationship, or a traumatic experience, or a tragic loss, and finishing with tears streaming down your cheeks. And yet, we (as readers and writers) must be ever vigilant to channel our emotion beyond itself. Emotional movement is not an end; it’s a beginning.

And therein lies the rub. Our responsibility as academics is to reach out beyond our stories, to step back and see what we might offer in the way of deeper understanding of the broader, deeper, richer, and more complex/complicated implications of our writing. We must be on the watch for our tendency to offer up a powerful, striking, evocative, compelling, startling, disruptive story, and then leave it at that. I’m not saying that we always have to stretch beyond the story to work out its implications, but I am saying that, if the story doesn’t speak for itself in this way, we must strive to build on the story, to craft its legacy—or, at minimum, to spark a dialogue with our readers. Our narratives should be engaging, responsible, responsive, and co-constructive of larger social realities.

If we take seriously the claim of social constructionist theorists—and at least many of us do—that human social realities are collaboratively constructed6 in and through communication, we must consider our autoethnographies to carry “worlding” power.7 In other words, our autoethnographies are powerful dialogic engagements with our readers (co-builders of human social realities). And that implies that we must seek to collaborate with our readers in building a better world.

The final peril, then, is that we may stop short of issuing a constructive call to action that will help us, together with our readers, to instantiate real change. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech was moving, evocative, poetic, lyrical, rhythmic, and beautiful. But try to imagine it without the repeated call to work for social justice and civil rights. The words would still be beautiful, but…the main point would missing. Similarly, we autoethnographers—even the critical autoethnographers—may sometimes fall short of calling for real social change. In the name of purity, we may sacrifice the messy “fierce urgency of now,”8 and miss out on the chance to send a message of hope and progressive action in our troubled times.

The Promises of Autoethnography

As autoethnographers, we are uniquely positioned to raise our voices, and to reach broader audiences inside and outside the academy. There is no doubt that our writing is clear, compelling, and accessible. So the time for falling into our academic cocoons in silent complacency (and thus slipping into irrelevance in our broader culture) has long since passed. It is time to raise our voices in outrage at the racism, the brutality, the ignorance, the hatred, the oppression, and the cowardice of the political right in this country and around the world.

As Denzin has put it, qualitative inquiry is under fire.9

It’s high time we fired back.

In one of his last books before his untimely death, Goodall argued that progressive academics are in a narrative arms race against conservatives—who have decided to fight even the idea of truth or some shared sense of what is real—and that the conservatives are winning.10 He called upon us all to use our narrative skills to recapture the public imagination. I think he was speaking directly to autoethnographers. We have the narrative chops. We just need to add civic juice to our work. I think this is the biggest promise of autoethnography moving forward. We have a great opportunity to expand our collective story to become part of a larger story of engaged civic action.

We must not flinch from our responsibility to the world. To do so would be to squander our privileged position as scholars who care about what happens to our planet and its people (and other creatures).

We academics stand in a place of privilege. We have the rare opportunity to influence the thinking of thousands of people, perhaps more. Most of these are our captive audiences of students, of course. Some are colleagues who read our work, or who attend our conference presentations, so that they can continue their lifelong project of learning. But too often we don’t reach beyond these two built-in audiences. Some of the reason for that is, of course, structural. The outlets for academic publishing are crafted for limited audiences. But might we not push the boundaries outward, and embark on the project of building larger audiences for our work? Some of us write blogs, of course. Others do podcasts and radio shows and interviews. Some of us write Op-Ed pieces for our newspapers. Some write white papers for public community consumption.

These are laudable efforts.

We must do more.

We must address—and publicly, vocally, forcefully call for constructive, progressive action on—longstanding and emerging existential threats like environmental destruction/climate change, xenophobia, racism, misogyny, hatred, violence, war, and social injustice of all kinds. It may not be enough anymore just to shine the light on these problems; it may well be that we must go a step further, put ourselves out on a limb, and take our work out into the streets.

It may be that we must employ autoethnography as social activism.

The natural outgrowth of the critical turn in autoethnography—its next evolutionary moment—is, I think, an activist turn.

Our autoethnographic voices are powerful, eloquent, moving—and (like Dr. King’s voice) hold very real potential as startling catalysts for real social change. Oh, we could just sit at our desks, and grade papers, and write stories, and construct committee reports, and, well, diligently complete all the assigned tasks of our jobs. Sure, we could just keep our mouths shut, keep a low profile. We could easily just spend all our time spinning our wheels, nose to the grindstone, working our fingers to the bone in the safety of our ivory towers. Today’s conservative/neoliberal academy—with its emphasis on productivity and efficiency—rewards that.

We don’t have to stand up and issue a call for real social change.

But we can.

And if we can, we should.

Notes

1

Arthur P. Bochner, “Narrative’s virtues,” Qualitative Inquiry 7 (2001): 131–157.

2

Carolyn Ellis, The Ethnographic I: A Methodological Novel about Autoethnography (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2004).

3

H.L. Goodall Jr., Counter-Narrative: How Progressive Academics Can Challenge Extremists and Promote Social Justice (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2010).

4

Norman K. Denzin, Qualitative Inquiry Under Fire (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2009); Norman K. Denzin, The Qualitative Manifesto: A Call to Arms (New York: Routledge, 2010).

5

The reader should know that I am a BIG fan of a powerful, striking, evocative, compelling, startling, disruptive story, so I don’t say this lightly!

6

Kenneth Gergen, The Saturated Self (New York: Basic Books, 1992); Kenneth Gergen, Relational Being: Beyond Self and Community (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); Anthony Giddens, The Constitution of Society. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984); W. Barnett Pearce, Making Social Worlds: A Communication Perspective (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2007); Calvin O. Schrag, Communicative Praxis and the Space of Subjectivity (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986); John R. Searle, The Construction of Social Reality (New York: The Free Press, 1995); John Shotter, Conversational Realities: Constructing Life through Language (London: Sage, 1993); John Stewart, Language as Articulate Contact: Toward a Post-Semiotic Philosophy of Communication (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995).

7

John Stewart, Beyond the Symbol Model: Reflections on the Representational Nature of Language. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996)

8

Martin Luther King Jr., “I Have a Dream.” Speech presented at the march on Washington for Jobs and freedom. Washington, DC, 1963.www.archives.gov/files/press/exhibits/dream-speech.pdf

9

Denzin, Qualitative Inquiry Under Fire, p. 1.

10

Goodall, p. 11.