Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

The Researcher as Autobiographer: Analyzing Data Written about Oneself

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

The Researcher as Autobiographer: Analyzing Data Written about Oneself

Article excerpt

This paper explores some of the issues that arise when one is dealing with data that has been produced by the researcher about their own experience. In particular, we are interested in exploring the ways that researchers can go about analysing autobiographical data. Many researchers produce data that is autobiographical. Ethnographers produce fieldnotes. Action Researchers often write about their own practice. Phenomenologists, sociologists and historians may write narratives that are autobiographical. There is a growing trend for researchers working in a range of settings to view themselves simultaneously being both a subject (or the subject) and a researcher. Data analysis techniques that work well when dealing with data about other people may not be as useful when one is working with one's own data. We will suggest a number of strategies that a researcher can employ to analyse such data including collaborative analysis, forms of grounded theory and alternative forms of representation such as poetry, art and drama. We will also discuss the use of frameworks such as particular psychodynamic theories, feminist theories and critical theories as ways of gaining additional insight from the analysis of the researcher's biographical writings.

Key Words: Autobiography, Data analysis, Action research

Introduction

This paper explores some of the issues that arise when one is dealing with data that has been produced by the researcher about their own experience. In particular, we are interested in exploring the ways that researchers can go about analysing autobiographical data and we describe techniques that they can use to increase the rigour and usefulness of that analysis. First, we will discuss some ways of ensuring that the data is of the highest quality, as data analysis is only as good as the raw material that the researcher has to work with. Second, we will describe some ways of using professional supervisors and other individuals and groups to help the researcher move beyond their own assumptions and comfort zones. We will also briefly discuss how data analysis tools (such as grounded theory) and theoretical frameworks (such as psychodynamic theories) can also be used to help the researcher gain new perspectives. Finally, we will draw upon or own experiences to describe in a more personal way, the emotional and psychological anxiety that working with one's own data creates and we will mention some of the ways we attempt to deal with this anxiety.

For the purposes of this paper autobiographical data is data that '... contains information about the self' (Brewer, 1986). Stone (1981, p. 80) describes autobiography as being '... simultaneously historical record and literary artefact, psychological case history and spiritual confession, didactic essay and ideological testament'. Similarly, Berryman (1999) describes autobiography as being a series of paradoxes: fact and fiction, private and communal, lessons and lies.

Some writing about using autobiographical data is about using other people's autobiographical data. We are concerned here with data generated by the researcher about the researcher. The debate about the extent to which autobiographical data is 'true' (Brill de Ramirez, 1999; Neisser, 1982) is beyond the scope of this paper. The choice to use autobiographical data is often driven by the questions the researcher is asking. Research questions pertaining to one's own professional practice (e.g., Cherry, 2000; Boucher, 1995) or personal experience (Ellis, 1995; Ronai, 1992) clearly require the researcher to study themselves. Also, some research methods such as ethnography and action research are characterised by their use of autobiographical data. Ethnographers produce fieldnotes or keep diaries that often contain very personal data (Van Maanan, 1988; Ben-Ari, 1995; Coffey, 1999). Action Researchers may analyse and report on their own practice (Cherry, 2000). Phenomenologists, sociologists and historians may also use data that are wholly or partly autobiographical (Banks & Banks, 1998; Bartunek & Reis, 1996; Borsay, 1997; Richardson, 1992). …

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