Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Autoethnography as Research Methodology?

Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Autoethnography as Research Methodology?

Article excerpt


Composition studies has adapted ethnographic practices to form a new research methodology in "autoethnography." This article highlights some of the problematic issues in the autoethnography, interrogates the shift away from autobiography, and proposes a new relationship for the reader and researcher.


In The Interpretation of Cultures, Clifford Geertz argues, "a good interpretation of anything... takes us into the heart of that which it is the interpretation" (18). This suggests a profound faith in the researcher, in the process of inquiry systematized by ethnographic methodology, and in knowledge itself: that a researcher can, in fact, find the "heart" of a culture and re-present it in language, that there is a definable "heart."

Autoethnography grows out of this methodology, a cross-disciplinary "borrowing." As Linda Brodkey argues in Writing Permitted in Designated Areas Only, autoethnography is the study of a culture through an individual's self-study: "personal histories ground cultural analysis and criticism" (27). As a relatively new methodology in composition studies, it little theoretical framing of its own; this newly emerging disciplinary practice derives its authority as a research method from anthropology. Thus composition scholars are "doing" autoethnography without a discipline-specific context.

But what does this really mean? What is the relationship between ethnographic fieldwork defined from an anthropological perspective and composition studies' adaptation and appropriation of it? Finally, how does autoethnography relate to autobiography?

From Ethnography

Geertz asserts the subjective nature of ethnography as an interpretive, not merely observational, study of the "data" of a culture, the "socially established structures of meaning ... What we call our data are really our constructions of other people's constructions of what they and their compatriots are up to" (12, 10). The ethnographer must "sort out [of] structures of signification" (9) by systematizing her interpretations of her informants' interpretations. Geertz argues, "Cultural analysis is (or should be) guessing at meaning, assessing the guesses, and drawing explanatory conclusions from the better guesses" (20).

However, these broad goals are not transparently enacted, for example, in "Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight." Geertz's constructions are presented as "fact" with little reference to how the Balinese view themselves: "the villagers dealt with us as the Balinese always seem to deal with people not part of their life ... as though we were not there ... ignored us in a way only a Balinese can do..." (412). He is sorting out "'structures of signification" here, but apparently only through the lens of his experience, and only though the comparison of the Balinese to other cultures. When he does refer to his informants' constructions, it is to validate his conclusions. After an explication of the "deep psychological identification of Balinese men with their cocks" (417) and the rituals of the cockfight and betting, Geertz enumerates the ways that this plays out the "status concerns" of the culture. He concludes, "Finally the Balinese peasants themselves are quite aware of all this and can and, at least to an ethnographer, do state most of it in approximately the same terms I have" (440).

While they can recognize "a dimension of Balinese experience normally that is obscured from view" (444) which Geertz has presented as simultaneously "fact" and his meaning-making, they can only do so via the presence of the cultural outsider. A faith in the researcher and his data: the outsider can accurately "read" a culture.[1] Recognizing cultural patterns, in Geertz's formula, hinges upon that researcher.

Ethnographic methodology has proved fruitful for composition studies and education research, in accounting, in particular, for the development of literacy and the influences of culture upon a writer. …

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