This 1700 word article is narrated here! Listen to my lovely voice on the go 🙂
I’m obsessed with autoethnography! I’ve read several ethnography examples, but so far it seemed as though something was missing; something that would not enable me to fully capture the complexity of my study. This might be a premature judgement, but my views of this method of data collection have changed significantly since coming across the ‘auto’ approach. When I first read about it, I was excited and somewhat relieved that such a method existed! I came across it a only few weeks ago, and being several months into my PhD, I think I was more surprised by the fact that I had never heard about it, than how unique this approach to research was. This article will first explore some basic ethnography examples before examining its close relative, autoethnography; and then finally, we’ll discuss why I am so excited by it.
Introduction: Ethnography Examples
Hammersley and Atkinson (2007) describe the tasks of ethnographers as involving participation either overtly or covertly in the lives of others for an extended period of time. In such settings, a combination of watching the daily happenings of events, listening to what is being said, interviewing key people, and acquiring documents and artifacts, all of which serve to explore emerging issues within a specific environment. By using a broad range of sources for data collection, generally, such studies are small-scale in a single setting, usually to facilitate an in-depth study. Additionally, people’s actions are studied in everyday contexts, or ‘in the field’. In ethnography, the outcome of data analysis results in an “interpretation of meanings, functions, and consequences of human actions and institutional practices, and how these are implicated in local, and perhaps also wider, contexts” (p. 3).
This description leads us into the study I’m currently designing. It is a comparative case study focused on Kenya and Uganda, considering the large influxes of refugees from two other East African countries: Somalia and South Sudan. Part of the reason I am fascinated with this study is that despite what I can only describe as truly pressing events in this part of the world, it seems to be on the back-burner for coverage by major news outlets. I’ve seen endless coverage on how refugees and other migrants are entering Europe, but virtually nothing on those entering other African countries. Was this simply because of where I was accessing this information from, or is there something else happening? Prior to starting this journey, I was completely unaware of how bad the situation was. But soon enough, through various books, reports, journals, and audio material, I became profoundly alarmed at what I discovered. One stat that was particularly daunting was finding out that Uganda, as of 2017, housed over a million refugees (Robinson, 2017). How could a nation of only 41 million people have over a million seeking refuge within its borders? I was astounded to say the least.
The academic work written on the topic of refugees in East Africa was abundant! My challenge was now to find where my work will be positioned amidst the many giants in the field. Despite the immensity of this endeavour, I kept reading and writing. However, unbeknownst to me, I seem to have been infusing bits and pieces of my own life experiences into this study. First of all, the focus on refugees was questionable. I had never done any major academic work in that area apart from a short group report on migrants entering Europe through Greece.
Secondly, even as I decided to focus on entrepreneurial initiatives for refugees offered by educational NGOs, I seemed to be designing the study in a way that it focused on the organisations rather than the refugees themselves. I opted to use ethnographic techniques such as participant observation, and examining policy documents along with interviews with key staff. This would then enable me to explore strategies that NGOs were using to provide various educational services for refugees in Kenya and Uganda. And why these two countries? My reasoning was that in addition to receiving major numbers of people from Somalia and South Sudan, they also had very different policies on refugees’ right to work and movement in the country, with variations in its implementation in each country. I thought this would make quite an interesting comparison.
One day, after a discussion with a colleague about my research, I found myself asking again: why refugees, why organisations, and why entrepreneurship? Because even as this study seemed to be taking on a life of its own, where increasingly spaces for networking and acquiring skills became my focus, it also became increasingly obvious that my childhood growing up in West Africa (and later Canada) was very much the driving force.
Having spent the first third of my life in Ghana, and the next in The Gambia, maybe in some way I felt displaced and not belonging to any one of those countries, and thought it necessary to study others that were more so. Overtime, I also realised that my experiences in various classroom settings where I had no choice over the material I learned, led me to my interest in examining the macro structures that govern the way people live. My own entrepreneurial aspirations soon became evident as motivators for my study, but the extent to which this was the case only became obvious once I discovered autoethnography.
I first came across the word in reading the work of Helen Kara. Eventually I was led to the writing of Caroline Ellis who seemed to be a major leader in that field. From my initial readings of autoethnographic methods, and examples of academics writing such texts, my understanding is that it seeks to incorporate the researcher’s experiences into a study, in a way that is not self-indulgent, self-hating or any of the self-obsessing ways that some people seem to despise about us selfie-taking millennials. So in short, it needs to enrich the study in a sophisticated way.
I started to take the method seriously when I read Caroline Ellis’ The Ethnographic I (2004). The book is beautifully written as a series of lectures where the voices of her students are part of the narrative. In one lecture, a student of hers, Valerie, discusses how as a breast cancer survivor, she is having conversations with other women surviving breast cancer to explore how they cope several years after their ordeal. Elaborating, Valerie claims that the usual question-answer interview style didn’t seem to productively draw on the full experience of survivors since she, as the researcher, was also a survivor herself. Further clarifying the use of this method, Valerie argues that “the researcher’s story is important in its own right, not as a tactic” to get other participants to tell their story (p. 65).
‘Auto’: More Ethnography Examples
Throughout the book, Ellis (2004) outlines various approaches for incorporating the auto (self) into one’s research. One that stood out to me was the ‘reflexive dyadic interview’ (p. 61) example, where an interview with someone might take on a conversational form to interactively produce “meanings and emotional dynamics within the interview” (p. 62). In plain English, what this means is that the focus is very much on the interviewees and their story, but the researcher’s words, thoughts and feelings are also considered. Here, the researcher may talk about what brought them to their study, and how this knowledge of themselves influences what an interviewee says.
‘Auto’: Some Challenges
As Valerie recounts later in the book, this approach is not always straightforward. She notes that in interviews with participants, “few of them really were interactive” (p. 122). In her experience, on the one hand, some women were so involved in telling their story, that there was little room for anything else, or others simply sat quietly after their responses in anticipation for the next question to be asked. Valerie explains that she often held back because she didn’t want her story to get in the way of those being told. And that’s one of the challenges for this kind of approach, what is the right balance? Nonetheless, Ellis explains that in incorporating one’s experience as a researcher, the “subjective and emotional reflections adds context and layers to the story being told about participants” (ibid). Additionally, the interaction in conversational interviews doesn’t necessarily need to happen during the interview. It might be best in the writing stage when you’re better able to reflect.
Another challenge, at least for Valerie, was in capturing the ‘passion’ in these interviews. As she chose to write each session in a different format (such as a letter in diary, a monologue, or a conversation), to reflect the varying qualities of their interaction, she often found it difficult to incorporate instances where she cried with a participant or had very emotional experiences with them. Here, Ellis encourages her to keep experimenting with different formats, but also consider that even as this approach affords the researcher creative control in formatting different interviews, issues of truth and accuracy quickly spring up. Ellis notes that a researcher might be “trying so hard to be accurate or factual that” (p. 123), they may end up losing the heart of a story. For Valerie, being able to convey the emotional experience of an interview becomes significant.
As Hammersley and Atkinson (2007) recall the work of Abell et al. (2006), they note that attempts to build relationships with young people through disclosing shared experience can sometimes damage the data that is being solicited; such as instances where there are marked differences in the religious or political views between the researcher and the participants. As a result, “self-conscious impression management” (p. 73) becomes pertinent.
Even as we have discussed some ethnography examples, and its use in qualitative research, the approaches outlined for autoethnography have made it relevant and potentially useful for my own work. I intend to use it to draw on my educational experiences living in Ghana and The Gambia, and how these countries shape my views on the NGOs I’m studying. So, fellow researcher, if you’re out there thinking about including aspects of your life, critically, into your work, I encourage you to. It’s such a fascinating field, and I’m excited to explore it some more! I’m enjoying Hammersley and Atkinson’s ethnography text which is getting me grounded in some foundational ideas on the topic. Alongside this are Carolyn Ellis’ The Ethnographic I, and Tessa Muncey’s Creating Autoethnographies. I’ve included the references below for everything I’m reading. Here’s a link to my first post about this journey. Thanks for reading 🙂
Ellis, C. (2004). The ethnographic I: A methodological novel about autoethnography. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.
Hammersley, M., & Atkinson, P. (2007). Ethnography: Principles in practice (3rd ed.). London: Routledge. doi:10.4324/9780203944769
Kara, H. (2015). Creative research methods in the social sciences: A practical guide. Bristol: Policy Press.
Muncey, T. (2010). Creating autoethnographies. London: SAGE
Robinson, C. (2017). South Sudanese refugees in Uganda now exceed 1 million. UNHCR. Retrieved 7 June 2018, from http://www.unhcr.org/afr/news/stories/2017/8/59915f604/south-sudanese-refugees-uganda-exceed-1-million.html