Academic journal article British Journal of Community Justice

How Biography Influences Research: An Autoethnography

Academic journal article British Journal of Community Justice

How Biography Influences Research: An Autoethnography

Article excerpt

Introduction

Encouraged by the crisis of confidence in the social sciences engendered by postmodernism, many scholars in the 1980s began to question, amongst other things, the nature of the 'facts' and 'truths' that they had supposedly 'found' (Ellis, Adams & Bochner, 2011: 1). The impact of the researcher's own background assumptions on the research process, which had hitherto been largely unacknowledged, was belatedly admitted, along with the possibility that so called 'grand narratives' (Lyotard, 1984) were not only impossibly difficult to construct, but actually undesirable. It was in this context that the autoethnographic approach, which 'recognises the innumerable ways personal experience influences the research process' (Ellis, Adams & Bochner, 2011: 1), began to emerge. Autoethnography can be loosely defined as 'an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyze (graphy) personal experience (auto) in order to understand cultural experience (ethno). [...] A researcher uses tenets of autobiography and ethnography to do and write autoethnography' (Ellis, Adams & Bochner, 2011: 1). It is through this combination of autobiography (retroactively and selectively writing about past experiences) and ethnography (studying the relational practices, common values and beliefs of a culture) (Ellis, Adams & Bochner, 2011: 2) that the approach can contribute to the production of 'thick descriptions' (Geertz, 1973: 10) of particular cultures and social phenomena.

When compared with other branches of the social sciences, criminology has arguably been rather reluctant to grapple with the idea that qualitative inquiry has autoethnographic dimensions, and that there are intimate links between the biographies of researchers themselves and the outcomes of the research projects that they engage in (Jewkes, 2013). For Jewkes (2011: 65), the 'fixations of criminology' identified by Joe Sim (2004), namely methodology, objectivity, restrained language and appropriate form, discourage any form of biographical or emotional intrusion by the researcher. As Wakeman (2014: 707) puts it, 'the crux of the matter is this: for various reasons, and despite significant advances in recent years, many criminologists remain hesitant to include much detail of themselves, their life histories and their emotive processes in the presentation of their research findings'.12 Recently however, there have been signs of a shift in this regard. For example, Phillips and Earle (2010) have candidly outlined the manner in which their own biographies, identity and memories framed their study of prisoner identities. More recently still, Wakeman, in the course of his argument for a 'lyrical criminology', suggests that an autoethnography which focuses upon the 'researcher's biographic and emotive self' can potentially 'significantly enhance criminology's methodological repertoire' (2014: 705).

In light of this nascent trend in criminological research, this article tells the story (Ellis, Adams & Bochner, 2011: 3) of how aspects of my own personal biography impacted upon the research that I undertook for my PhD and beyond on 'hidden' older illegal drug users. Jewkes (2011) has discussed how academics often present their fieldwork and findings as if it has gone smoothly in a way that does a 'disservice' to those that follow them, for it obscures the often messy business of doing research. As the autoethnography presented here will show, the progress of this particular research project was far from serene. The next section will introduce the research project and the sampling and data collection techniques that were employed. Following this, I present the story of what happened during the fieldwork, paying particular attention to how my own biographical characteristics seemed to impact upon the sample building and data collection phases of the study. I will explore how, as time passed and some of my own biographical characteristics developed, a number of the difficulties involved in conducting the research were alleviated, at least to a degree. …

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