The purpose of Stephen Andrew’s Searching for an Autoethnographic Ethic is to provide novice autoethnographers with a method of identifying, examining, and documenting their ethical choices in research. Andrew explains that in writing the book he saw a need for more explicit ethical guidelines for novice researchers who are new to autoethnography. While the topic risks being somewhat abstract, Andrew has used a meta-autoethnographic writing style to illustrate his points, providing examples of his own ethical approach to doing autoethnography, along with explanations of how and why his approach developed as it did. Each of the seven chapters, moreover, is organized around a story from the author’s life, and this story illustrates an aspect of ethics in autoethnography.
Andrew has developed a framework derived from “psychology, sociology, ethnography and philosophy”1 with which to evaluate his autoethnographies. For ease of use, he presents his framework as a pair of grids through which autoethnographies can be screened. The first two chapters set the scene for these evaluation grids and the exemplar texts that follow. Chapter 1 is an introduction to what autoethnography is and the ethics of autoethnography (relational ethics, ethical guidelines, contextuality and reflexivity in ethics, ethics of revelation and healing, disembodied ethics), and an ethical direction for the book as a whole. Andrew provides a landscape of ethics in autoethnography and of certain situations where ethics become murky, for instance, using participant checks for people mentioned in one’s study who might be hostile to the project or to the researcher. Andrew explains that there is a need for guidance here, particularly for the less experienced researcher who may not be able to draw on their gut instinct.
Chapter 2 outlines the nature of the ethical complexities of doing autoethnography in terms of the ethics of story creation and ethics of storytelling, aspects that autoethnographers have often written about. However, Andrew adds to this the strengths and limitations of the researcher and the method, as well as a discussion about the value of intuitionism. Andrew discusses intuitionism at some length in the book and describes its key principle as follows: “that we use what we already [intuitively] know to inform our ethical choices.”2 He explains further: “While the philosophical duties within intuitionism (fidelity, reparation, gratitude, justice, egalitarianism, beneficence, self-improvement, and non-maleficence) are ideas, attitudes, and actions that are shared by a wide range of other philosophies, its focus on considering and ordering these duties on a case-by-case basis is what sets intuitionism apart from other systems of thought.”3 The chapter sets out the following key questions:
What are the key areas of ethical concern for autoethnographic research?
What philosophical approach might offer relevant guidelines here?
What might an ethical guide to autoethnography look like?
How might this guide perform when tested on pieces of my own autoethnography?
If there were a consistent ethic for autoethnographic writing, what might it look like?
The grids Andrew uses to evaluate ethical choices are presented in chapter 3. Before using the grids, Andrew recommends first evaluating what he refers to as the “ethical mood” of the piece of writing and to allow the writer a chance to reflect on their motives for including the piece. The first grid (the exposure grid) identifies potentially problematic parts of texts, while the second grid (the ideas-and-duties grid) screens these parts through the lens of autoethnographic practice and intuitionism. The exposure grid concerns pre-empting potential harms by predicting the emotional exposure that could be experienced by groups or individuals. The ideas-and-duties grid must be applied using the individual researcher’s judgment.
Andrew’s examples (chapters 4, 5, and 6) are useful because they show different ethical aspects of autoethnographic work. The first example concerns Andrew’s own love experiences. Love is personal and intimate, and discussing it renders the writer vulnerable, a situation that new researchers may not at first realize is an ethical challenge. In another example, Andrew explores the difference between pain and harm to those who have experienced trauma. Later examples are more recent, and Andrew shows how the grid is important for him to work out the implications in this situation where he cannot remain objective.
Chapter 7 concludes the book by explaining Andrew’s own need for a philosophical foundation for autoethnography, as well as the discipline’s need to have an ethical framework that keeps autoethnographers focused on questions such as, “Is my writing valid?,” “Is it safe?,” “Is it safe enough?,” “Is it too safe?,” “Is it even research?” These concerns have been discussed in several research articles, but they need to be repeatedly scrutinized by autoethnographers.
Ethics in autoethnography has been widely discussed in research articles and on discussion groups, and the need for a particularized, reflective approach that continues through the research process has been identified by Ellis, Lapadat, and others.4 Some researchers have described the autoethnographic process as being in itself ethical due to its making clear the struggle of research and knowledge creation.5 De Andrade warns against the “ambiguous and narrow” nature of institutional ethical guidelines that may not protect the researcher from unethical behavior when straddling different codes of conduct.6
Andrew’s book is a response to this need. His book has many strengths. When ethically complex situations are discussed in autoethnographic literature, researchers often cite dramatic situations with dramatic consequences. Andrew, by contrast, deliberately chooses less controversial examples that are widely relatable and reveals situations where the ethical dilemmas are more subtle. Andrew himself comes from psychology, and this allows him to engage with some of the reflexivity and relational issues from that disciplinary perspective. For instance, his considerations of pain versus harms and clean versus dirty pain are helpful, especially for researchers who may not share his background and who may not have conducted research in which real people are involved. His framework, moreover, is interdisciplinary, developed from psychology, sociology, ethnography, and philosophy.
Andrew starts the book with a description of autoethnography and the ethics debate and proceeds to lay out a clear set of guidelines for working ethically with this methodology. Hence the reader does not require a background in ethics or autoethnography to benefit from the book. While setting guidelines, Andrew has avoided being prescriptive in that he identifies areas the researcher needs to heed, but encourages researchers to reflect on these and decide for themselves.
I enjoyed following Andrew on his journey and engaging with his stories because he sets up situations where the reader should question his ethical motives. For example, I wondered whether using his experiences with love was a way for Andrew to have his cake and eat it too by publicly talking about people and relationships that have caused him pain. He later addresses this question by evaluating his story, which he finds somewhat conservative and disappointing possibly because of failures of memory and self-censoring, but he can show that it meets his criteria for being ethically sound.
I did experience a couple of challenges reading the book. Andrew uses an intuitionist approach to ethics. He maintains that intuitionism facilitates reading autoethnography on a case-by-case basis, but so do other ethical approaches. I do not feel the book showed me enough about intuitionism compared with other approaches for me to decide if intuitionism is the best approach for me. However, I can see that a more detailed discussion of ethics might have rendered the book overly complex for a text aimed at novice researchers. A related issue is that Andrew uses words such as “honesty” and “true” without explaining what he means. This is part of intuitionism, but the history of ethics has shown us that leaving ethical issues up to people’s goodwill and common sense can be extremely dangerous and such moral choices need to be scrutinized.
The meta-autoethnographic structure of the book reflects Andrew’s own journey through ethical issues very engagingly. However, I found that the structure sometimes impeded my understanding of what I was reading. For example, more detail around the grids and the use of the superscript numbers in the examples in chapter 3 would have made subsequent chapters easier to follow.
Does one need a framework and a grid? Some researchers have suggested that a more collaborative approach to autoethnography would help introduce greater ethical clarity,7 but one does not always have people with whom one might collaborate, and if one’s collaborators are also new to the field, their input may not help one avoid the pitfalls. This is where Andrew’s approach is so useful.
Andrew’s book can be read alongside Tolich’s guidelines for autoethnographers, as the two approaches complement each other.8 Tolich proposes anticipatory ethics, which Andrew does not, stating instead that one cannot take responsibility for that one cannot anticipate;9 however, Andrew shows how one might develop a more thorough and process-driven approach to the ethics of autoethnography, where one can document one’s ethical choices for future consideration by oneself or others. This may help with a controversial point that Ellis raises: “Sometimes you may decide not to take your work back to those you write about. In those cases, you should be able to defend your reasons for not seeking their responses.”10 Andrew’s book may help researchers accomplish this.
The ethics of autoethnography is a complex issue. In my view, Searching for an Autoethnographic Ethic is accessible for novice researchers and provides useful, practical advice and techniques to better understand the ethical issues that confront us all. I do think it is important to remember that no amount of guidelines, grids, or other devices can make a researcher ethical. Ultimately, researchers must choose to behave in ethical ways.
Stephen Andrew, Searching for an Autoethnographic Ethic (New York: Routledge, 2017), x.
Andrew, Searching, 48.
Andrew, Searching, 48.
Carolyn Ellis, “Telling Secrets, Revealing Lies: Relational Ethics in Research with Intimate Others,” Qualitative Inquiry 13, (January 2007): 3–29, doi:10.1177/1077800406294947. Judith C. Lapadat, “Ethics in Autoethnography and Collaborative Autoethnography,” Qualitative Inquiry 23, no. 8 (October 2017): 589–603, doi.org/10.1177/1077800417704462
Elizabeth Dauphinee, “The Ethics of Autoethnography,” Review of International Studies 36, no. 3 (July 2010): 799–818, doi:10.101 7/S0260210510000690. Marisa De Andrade, “Public Relations and Aca-Media: Autoethnography, Ethics and Engagement in the Pharmaceutical Industry,” Public Relations Inquiry 3, no. 1 (January 2014): 113–136, doi.org/10.1177/2046147X13519813
De Andrade, “Public Relations,” 132.
Lapadat, “Ethics”; Monica Taylor, Emily Klein, and Linda Abrams, “Tensions of Reimagining Our Roles as Teacher Educators in a Third Space: Revisiting a Co/autoethnography Through a Faculty Lens,” Studying Teacher Education 10, no. 1 (January 2014): 3–19. doi:10.1080/17425964.2013.866549
Martin Tolich, “A Critique of Current Practice: Ten Foundational Guidelines for Autoethnographers,” Qualitative Health Research 20, no. 12 (December 2010): 1599–1610, doi:10.1177/1049732310376076
Andrew, Searching, 33.
Ellis, “Telling Secrets,” 24.