Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Auto-ethnography, a validation process for ethnographic research

Auto-ethnography is the second tier in validating the scientific (objective) observations of the field ethnographer. Auto-ethnography is those observations and recordings that the field ethnographer makes that describe what they did as both observer and more importantly, as a participant in the community being studied.

In socio-cultural anthropology, the data is behavior, human behavior recorded by and through the observations and participation of a human being of the socio-cultural system or subsystem of a community of human actors. The questions that haunts cultural anthropologists are, "How objective is the reporting?" "Can the anthropologist truly divorce him/herself from ones own cultural and gender biases?" "How do we deal with subjectivity?" Unlike the other three field of Anthropology, there are no real external standards for judging the validity and reliability of the data reported.

In archaeology, one has the physical evidence of the artifacts collected, and the maps drawn of the site according to well established mapping techniques and standards including the physical measurements of the relationship between features and feature and artifacts. Because archaeology is a destructive activity, it is crucial that the research and future generations can reconstruct the site from the records long after they have been destroyed in the initial process of recovery.

In biological and physical anthropology there are protocols, standardized physical instruments and biological test. These standard instruments and procedures produce a data set that can be replicated if desired when applied to the same or similar subjects at another time by the same or different trained researcher. This insures the validity of the first study and demonstrates the reliability of the record and procedures used.

In linguistics data collection is fairly simple using audio equipment to record the phonetics, and morphemes as well as spoken sentences which once captured can be analyzed by standard procedures. Where and when recording devices were not available, a standardized phonetic alphabet was used to record sounds, words, and word elements. Anyone trained to read and write the alphabet could reconstruct the language as recorded and if necessary test the meanings reported in a translation against what any native speaker of the language in question would interpret the translation.

Cultural anthropology historically has been carried out by lone wolves who went off to an "unknown" or "little" known "primitive" community and came back to write an ethnography in which they described the "culture" of the studied group. This description was to be in objective terms based on the data collected by the researcher in field notes and photographs etc. All of these would be the product of the field worker. Yet there was no calibration the principle instrument, the field worker him/herself, to any "real" standard other than the claims of the researcher him/herself. There was no way to replicate the research at one point in time by a restudy at a different point in time.

As an undergraduate, in the early 1960, I was told that it would be best, if one planned a career in cultural anthropology, that one  have themselves psycho-analyzed before going into the field in order to understand what biases they bring to the field situation. Whether this was ever a widely held belief or practice I can not attest to, however, the idea of some form of "calibration" of the field worker as the recording device struck me as sound at the time. Later, as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I experienced what I suspected that process might be when we underwent extensive psychological evaluation before being finally selected to serve overseas.

So how do field ethnographers validate their work and how do they evaluate each others' work?

One of the first ethnographies I read as an undergraduate was Allen Holmberg's Nomads of the Long Bow. Its format was very typical of the time with sections on the social structure and kinship system, the economic system, political and religious systems, the annual group and individual life cycles. As far as I could tell, and I guessed the University of Chicago and my professors at Brown, this was a model ethnography. Yet there was something I found disturbing in the study. It was my first exposure to what has come to be called "auto-ethnography." Let me quote from Holmberg

“…in a society like the Siriono, where the food supply is both scarce and insecure, a person’s status necessarily depends on his ability as a provider of food than on any other single factor. This was clearly brought home to me [Allan Holmberg] time and time again while I was at Tibaera [located along the Rio Blanco in eastern Bolivia]
“One case deserves special mention. Enia (Knee) was the brother-in-law of Chief Eantandu.  He had  had some contact with the outside, but because of maltreatment had run away from his patrón and returned to native life. He was an intelligent man with an unusual ability (for a Siriono) to adjust to White civilization. He was a hard worker and reliable, and he knew considerable Spanish.  His one weakness was that he could not hunt as well as his countrymen. Time after time I saw him leave with his bow and arrows, and time after time I watched him return empty handed, while his fellow tribesman left after him on the same trail and return with game.He was generally referred to as "not knowing how to hunt." He was openly insulted at drinking feasts for his inability to hunt.He had lost one wife to a better man. His status was low; his anxiety about hunting, high. He had, however, made some kind of readjustment to native life by planting more crops and collecting more forest products than the others and trading some of his vegetables for meat. But still he was not satisfied. Noting this condition, I set out to raise his status. First he accompanied me with his bow and arrows on hunting trips. He carried in game which I shot [Holmberg had a shotgun to hunt for his own food], part of which was given to him and which we told others was shot by him. His status began to improve. Shortly thereafter, I taught him to use a shotgun, and he brought in game of his own. Needless to say, when I left Tibaera he was enjoying the highest status, had acquired several new sex partners, and was insulting others, instead of being insulted by them." (Holmberg, Allen 1960 p.60)
Here is a case of autoethnography where the researcher in the role of participant describes how he intervened into the lives of the people he was stdying and was able to test a hypothesis developed in the field about the relationship between male hunting skill and his social status or rank. He also reports on an intervention to teach one of his subjects how to use a shot gun in place of the traditional bow and arrows to hunt meat.

When I read this, back as an undergraduate I was struck by what I saw as the unanswered ethical question -- what happened when Holmberg left? Did he take the shot gun with him? How and where did Enia acquire shells for the gun, if Holmberg left it with him? These questions would not even have come up, had Holmberg not self reported his own role in the lives of this particular Siriono Indian and indirectly in the power struck of the band.

At the time I did not see this as an example of auto-ethnography. The term had not yet been invented. But situation Holmberg describes, did raise certain ethical questions in my mind about just how involved should or could a field researcher become with his subjects in the participant observer role?

It does, looking back on it today, provide an insight into Holmberg, as an activist field ethnographer who later chose to lead the legendary Vicos project..

Source: Nomads of the Long Bow: The Siriono of Eastern Bolivia. Allan Holmberg (Reprinted for the Second-Year Course in the Social Sciences) Syllabus Division, University of Chicago Press, Chicago. March 1960

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