Research for Social Change: Using Autoethnography to Foster Transformative Learning

Article excerpt

In this column, we address the future directions issue of how to integrate research and practice into increasingly diverse classroom and social settings. Educators have a critical responsibility to acknowledge, respect, and understand people from diverse backgrounds. In the current classroom environment where many diverse cultures are represented, autoethnography may be an important tool to aid in our understanding of each other's backgrounds. As a sociological form of autobiography, autoethnography helps people step outside their immediate personal constraints to examine their social world through new eyes. Thus, we believe autoethnography, as a research method and educational practice, may be a promising way to promote personal transformation which, in turn, may lead to cross-cultural understanding and social change.

The following example illustrates how autoethnography can shift one's inwardly-focused attention to an outward socially-oriented focus:

Five years after an immersive experience of living and working in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, personal circumstances and professional opportunity intersected: it was time for me (Michelle) to begin synthesizing, analyzing, and writing about this extraordinary, life-changing episode. Along with two colleagues, I began my analysis using autoethnography. The story and experience began in 2002, when I accepted an invitation to work at a women's college in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, as Director of Continuing Education. I accepted an invitation to work in Jeddah, from a Saudi friend who studied for her doctorate with me in the United States. We had collaborated on research and projects in classes. Our families were close. We interacted and ate together. We were sisters here. Because of this relationship, I expected and assumed much about the Sandi culture that proved very different in real experience. The mystique of the culture was difficult to penetrate even when working daily in an educational setting.

As a Director of Continuing Education, working with my friend and colleague, I assumed that I would be respected in my work at the college, and I would have the equal opportunities to participate in the decision making and implementation of programs developed through our office. When I was reprimanded for asking questions about the expectations of our work, and accused of betrayal when I answered a request for a program, I was shocked and hurt. This autoethnographic process helped me to research cultural differences between Sandi Arabia and the United States. For instance, a hierarchical relationship is accepted as a norm in Saudi Arabia; therefore, the concept of collaboration does not include equal and shared power. If one person has a tide above the other, this status cannot be challenged. Also in Sandi Arabia, people within the same group are expected to support each other at all times, and individual achievement is not as important as maintaining group harmony. …