Saturday, May 10, 2014

Autoethnography -- Calibrating the ethnographer as instrument

 I've been asked, "Could we define "auto-enthnography" as reflexivity?

I would argue that "reflexivity" is a method, one of several, that might be used to produce a product -- an autoethnography. To be reflective is to think objectively and critically about events, feelings and experiences one has witnessed. It is psychological and not anthropological.

An autoethnography is a scientific study of the "other" from the personal, professional point of view of the ethnographer as both the participant and as accepted as a member by the "other".

Let's look at the word behind the concept. "Auto" means "self", Someone or something is "auto" when it performs necessary functions for itself independent of outside influence. "Ethno" means "group", "race", "culture", that is, a collective set of people, their characteristic, behaviors, and/or beliefs. "Graphy" is a term that is attached to an object to imply a representation of the object such as "photo," "phono," "bio," or "ethno" Thus an autoethnography is a representation of a group, culture, race, or society as seen and experienced by one's self.

From my perspective and readings of "autoethnographic" essays and reports, the key difference between an autobiography which is an exercise in reflexivity and autoethnography is the emphasis on the "ethno" and not the "bio." That is the emphasis and point of view is that of the writer as a member of the group and not the self as the outsider.

How does one do this while avoiding "self-referencing? One does this by distinguishing between the group definition of who the ethnographer is and who the ethnographer believes she/he is. One does this by identifying explicitly what status the Other assigns the ethnographer and how the ethnographer interprets that status. This can be done by comparing the role performance expected by the Other as described in the ethnography for someone of that status with the ethnographer's testimony of his/her experience playing that role in the group.

Why is this important at all to anthropology as a science and how can this be of use to the humanist? As a scientific tool, autoethnography is a calibrating process for the reader and to a degree the ethnographer. It describes and documents the conditions under which the recording instrument, the ethnographer, experienced the culture of the group by defining the status/role positions the ethnographer occupied when making the observations. Anthropology is a natural science, in part, because it has no way of replicating the unique events it records. The autoethnography attempts to capture those aspects of the event that might be replicated and/or evaluated by a trained third party.

For the humanist, this is the source of drama, comedy and tragedy. Drama is all about conflict and cognitive dissonance where status and roles get confused and misinterpreted. For the humanist anthropologist, the autoethnography can be the first step in the process of writing a more philosophical ethnography.

The auto ethnography is not a replacement for the scientific ethnography or philosophical treatise, it is an adjunct to it that provides the reader with the context for the main object, the study of the Other.