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Autoethnography is a "research, writing, story and method that connect the autobiographical and personal to the cultural, social and political" (Ellis 2004). This method explores the writer's point of view and experiences of life in an analytical way. It is a subjective form of writing and research and differs from ethnography in this regard. The writer is the primary participant or subject of the research and writing. Autoethnography is also sometimes called "Narrative Ethnography".


Autoethnography is usually written in the first person. Examples of autoethnography can include "concrete action, dialogue, emotion, embodiment, spirituality and self-consciousness" (Ellis 2004). Writers have to constantly look back and forth between their own personal experience and vulnerability and the wider cultural and social aspects which have shaped their experience (Ellis 2003).


David Hayano is usually credited as the first person to use the term "autoethnography" (Ellis 2003).

Autoethnography has a history in feminism. In feminist literature, this way of writing is characterized as standpoint theories (Behar 1996). Like some forms of feminist writing, autoethnography is all about "using the material of our personal backgrounds and lived experiences to explain why and how we see and interpret the meanings of persons and things the way we do" (Goodall 2004). It also encourages us to write about our own personal matters and lived experiences that may challenge the social or cultural norms.

Autoethnography in Applied Communication Research

Autoethnography allows us to explore "shadowy realms of communication and identity" (Goodall 2004). Experiences like death, chronic illness, eating disorders and abortion are spoken about in some autoethnographic work. These topics are sometimes unspoken about in the public sphere because they are private, hidden or may have social and cultural baggage attached to them.

Autoethnographic writing is built on subjectivity. This is vastly different to most academic writing which is based on objectivity. Because autoethnographic work is subjective, there is less chance to be too scared or ashamed to write about ethically or morally challenging subjects. The more subjective an account of an experience is, the "truer" it is (Goodall 2004).

"Personal narratives are about communication as it is experienced in everyday life, which is always first person, deeply felt, rooted in our past, not always rational, and often messy" (Goodall 2004). So autoethnographers challenge existing ways of thinking and writing by writing about their own personal experiences. We only know what they know through their own experience, so by writing subjectively we are realising this through our practice.

"The New Ethnography"

Ethnography has historically been a method of social and cultural anthropology. Recently, ethnography has risen as a valid method for social psychology and communication (Vidich & Lyman 1994).

Traditional ethnography involved an outsider looking into a culture or world they are not a part of and commenting on it from outside. Autoethnography is a new kind of ethnography in that it involves a "culturally embedded observer" and "the problem that the material to be observed is available first hand, only to that single participant" (Steinfatt & Millette 2008).

Some question whether this new form of ethnography will last, stating that it will be judged on it's "heuristic value" (Steinfatt & Millette 2008).

Other terms for Autoethnography

It is hard to precisely define autoethnography as social scientists have changed and shaped the terms in different ways over time. Other terms that may relate to autoethnography are personal narratives, narratives of the self, personal experience narratives, self-stories, first person accounts, personal essays, ethnographic short stories, writing stories, narrative ethnography and many more (Ellis 2003).

Examples of Autoethnographic Work

Geist, P. (1999). "Surreal illusions, genuine realities: Disenchantment and renewal in the academy". Communication Theory 9: 365-376.

Tillmann-Healy, L. (1996). "A secret life in a culture of thinness: Reflections on body, food, and Bulimia." Composing ethnography: 76-108. In C. Ellis & A. P. Bochner (Eds.); Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira

Tillman-Healy, L. ((2001)) Between gay and straight: Understanding friendship across sexual orientation. Lanham, MD: AltaMira

Tillmann, Lisa M. (2009). "Body and Bulimia Revisited: Reflections on “A Secret Life”". Journal of Applied Communication Research 37(1): 98-112.

Trujillo, N. (1998) In search of Naunny's grave. Text and Performance Quarterly 18: 344-368.


Ellis, C & Bochner, A. (2003). "Autoethnography, Personal Narrative, Reflexivity: Researcher as Subject". Collecting and interpreting qualitative materials: 199-258.

Ellis, C. (2004). The ethnographic I: A methodological novel about autoethnography, AltaMira Press.

Goodall Jr, H. L. (2004). “Narrative Ethnography as Applied Communication Research.” Journal of Applied Communication Research 32(3): 185-194.

Steinfatt, T & Millette, D. (2008). "Intercultural Communication". An Integrated Approach to Communication Theory and Research (2): 299-322.

Vidich, A.J & Lyman, S.M. (1994). "Qualitative Methods: Their History in Sociology and Anthropology". The Landscape of Qualitative Research: Theories and Issues: 55-128.

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