What is autoethnography and why does it matter for theological reflection? | Heather Walton [ANVIL vol 36 issue 1]

In this short article, it is my hope to present to readers of Anvil the key features of autoethnography and the main forms in which it is currently practised.

I also seek to address why autoethnography is an important resource for theological reflection. In so doing I shall emphasise that autoethnography, as it emerged within the world of social research, was deeply implicated in the quest to find more engaged and participatory epistemologies (ways of knowing).

It thus serves as a particularly valuable resource for those who are seeking to engage with contemporary life in ways that provoke an inclusive, justice-seeking and transformative Christian response.

Approaching autoethnography

Autoethnography can be 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)”. [1] The emphasis upon both “analysis” and “cultural experience” places autoethnography alongside the many other forms of social research that seek to observe and interpret cultural life.

The use of the word “ethnography” within “autoethnography” is an important signal as to the meaning of the term. Ethnography refers to the multilayered study of cultural forms as they exist in everyday contexts. Its use links the autoethnographic project back to traditions of social investigation developed by pioneering anthropologists such as Franz Boas (1858–1942) and Bronisław Malinowski (1884–1942).

They developed traditions of inquiry based upon acute observation, and their detailed inscription of everyday events allowed them to analyse and represent the “ways of life” they encountered in their early ethnographic studies. A key part of this approach to research has always been the conscious use of the “self” as research instrument – indeed the perceptive skills of the attentive observer are what guarantees the reliability of data. However, autoethnography takes this process a good deal further. Instead of the researcher being a disciplined observer of social processes taking place “out there”, the project is brought much closer to home. The focus in autoethnography is upon the analysis and communication of those experiences that have shaped the observer themselves. Personal experience becomes a data source for “a critically reflexive methodology… [that] provides a framework to critically reflect upon the ways in which our personal lives intersect, collide and commune with others in the body politic”. [2]

This recognition that particular, located and embodied experience matters – and can be an important source of new knowledge and understanding – is vitally linked to the development of liberative movements such as feminism, postcolonialism and queer theory. All of these have emphasised the importance of the standpoint from which we view the world; to a large extent, where we stand determines what we see.

Instead of seeking to distance themselves from their context and observe from a neutral position, those who advocate emancipatory epistemologies have insisted that those who wear the shoes best know where they pinch. In other words, valuable understanding and, in consequence, insights for action come from attending closely to the voices of those who are most implicated in any issue of concern. This does not, of course, mean that their insights should not be tested and tried from a critical perspective and in wider conversation among stakeholders. Rather, it affirms that there is an “epistemic advantage” that emerges from the perspectives of those who care most and feel most about an issue – and that this is a crucial ingredient in any visions of transformed futures.

Although autoethnography has taken a defined shape only within the past 20 years, it has been enthusiastically embraced by an emerging generation of researchers who are keen to write themselves “into a deeper critical understanding… of the ways in which our lives intersect with larger sociocultural pains and privileges”. [3] One reason why it has proved so attractive is that it has sought to communicate these “pains and privileges” in strong, evocative ways that provoke empathetic responses. In so doing it has breached many of the boundaries between art and the social sciences and, in so doing, generated controversy and critique (see, for example, Denzin 2006). [4] Indeed, because autoethnography is such a lively and creative movement, it is not surprising to see diversity and disputes within it. There are various autoethnographic “schools” emerging with distinct emphases in their work. Three of the main approaches are outlined below.

Forms of autoethnography

Telling evocative stories Telling stories that evoke response is the vision for autoethnography powerfully articulated in the work of two of the most well-known advocates of autoethnography: Caroline Ellis and Art Bochner. It was their joint essay in the second edition of the Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research, Collecting and Interpreting Qualitative Materials, that heralded the emergence of autoethnography onto the public stage. [5] In this early “manifesto” they state quite clearly that the aim of autoethnography is to provoke feeling in order to generate an empathetic response to:

a self or some aspect of a life lived in a cultural context. In personal narrative texts authors become “I”, readers become “you”… [and] take a more active role as they are invited into the author’s world [and e]voked to a feeling level about the events described… The goal is to write meaningfully and evocatively about things that matter and may make a difference… and to write from an ethic of care and concern. [6]

It is important to note that Ellis and Bochner are not advocating a focus on the storyteller and their emotions and feelings. Stories are told in order to aid understanding of a “cultural context” and explore “things that matter” within it. Ellis and Bochner show a particular interest in those significant areas of social life that are rarely publicly narrated or addressed. But this cultural analysis is made possible through recounting experiences of personal transformation, “epiphanies”—remembered moments perceived to have significantly impacted the trajectory of a person’s life… times of existential crises that forced a person to attend to and analyze lived experience… and events after which life does not seem quite the same. [7]

The hope is that the constructing narratives of such life-changing events (including, for example, bullying, bereavement, work challenges, consciousness of ethnic identity, migration, sexual practice, abuse, childbirth, abortion, cancer treatment) will enable deeper perceptions to emerge. As generating such changed understandings becomes a major research goal, considerable attention has to be paid to constructing the autoethnographic text. They must be carefully crafted and are often written in an engaging narrative form, employing a variety of literary techniques, to move hearts and change minds. “Autoethnography wants the reader to care, to feel, to empathize and to do something, to act.” [8]

This is not to say that the experiences being recounted and the events surrounding them have no significance beyond their emotive power. I think it is very interesting that, despite her frequent affirmations of the importance of literary style within autoethnography, Ellis is a very “realistic”, no-nonsense sort of writer who wants to make very clear that people’s actions and life choices take place within specific social contexts.

It is rather that she seeks to draw attention to the importance of the writing process to research. Questions of the truth and reliability of an autoethnographic text are thus intimately bundled together with issues of style and representation. Those who advocate evocative autoethnography would argue that this has in fact always been the case even in traditional forms of ethnographic research. Ultimately we are always drawn back to questions concerning our trust in a narrator and our response to the narrator’s voice.

I hope it will be clear that this form of autoethnography has a great deal to offer the reflective theological writer. Very often we will seek to speak out of epiphanic moments of transformation. Frequently these epiphanies will be linked to embodied experiences that are rarely voiced in institutional religious contexts but will nevertheless carry great significance for us. Evocative autoethnographic writing can also convey the complexity and ambiguity of our religious selves.

Schooled in traditions of Bible reading, preaching and liturgy, we are already imbued with a sense of the purpose and power of evocative language forms. The challenge is to use these anew in expressing accounts of everyday selves and contemporary spiritual life.

Analytic autoethnography

While many autoethnographers are pursuing paths that take their work further and further away from the traditional forms of social investigation, there are others who believe that the autoethnographic pendulum has now swung too far in the direction of artistic creativity and emotional expression. These critics wish to harness its energies to serve a more conventional research agenda – namely the desire to investigate and theorise about the social world.

This view was powerfully expressed in an influential article by Leon Anderson entitled “Analytic Autoethnography” (2006). Anderson stated that he wished to celebrate “the value of autoethnographic research within the analytic ethnographic paradigm”. [9]

It was his belief that the standard ethnographic methods involving journal-keeping and note-taking have been reflective and accountable from their beginnings. Furthermore, insider perspectives have long been recognised and valued within dominant research traditions provided that the normal critical assessment is made of these and that personal experience is not seen as a simple guarantor of truth. The position he advocates is that autoethnography be recognised as making a valuable contribution, within proper limits and among other methods, to the processes through which we seek to accumulate data and analyse the world. This approach might seem modest and sensible.

However, Anderson is operating out of what is termed a “realist paradigm”. He seeks to use autoethnographic material alongside other empirical data “to gain insight into some broader set of social phenomena than those provided by the data themselves”. [10] The processes of generalisation, abstraction and theory-building that constitute the analytic approach he espouses are anathema to some autoethnographers. They insist on retaining the focus upon particularity and see all social theories as constructed narratives masquerading as factual accounts.

I do not think it is necessary for the reflective theological writer to take up arms in this particular battle. Some of us will tend towards realist epistemologies, and indeed realist theologies; others of us will see the world as constructed and understand our theologies as similarly shaped by human hands.

However, this does not mean that these world views should never communicate or that we should not see that there are social and political imperatives that require us at times to proceed in one way rather than another. I personally have supervised several doctoral theses in which autoethnography has been effectively combined with other forms of data generation that claim empirical credentials. Often this is the only way that the research would have been judged useful and trustworthy in the context it was intended to influence. I was happy to share in this research work despite the fact that I am personally suspicious of realist paradigms. Analytic discourses can be useful instruments for those seeking to promote political changes in the church and society at large. I am perfectly happy to include my own autoethnographic reflections in articles that are otherwise written in more analytic or theoretical terms (see, for example, Walton, 2018). [11] In short, I think the reflective theological writer should understand what is at stake in debates between evocative and analytic autoethnographers but not feel that they need to be unduly restricted by these considerations in terms of their own writing practices!

Performance autoethnography

The last form of autoethnography I shall refer to in this article is “performance autoethnography”. The term “performance” is not used to imply it takes place in a theatre (although it may do so) but rather that speaking from experience can be a staged act, an intervention, a public and political display. It may be a display that takes place textually or in an educational context, or through preaching or prophetic action. In all such cases, the autoethnographer is hoping that the impact of their work will extend beyond the academic environment and “perform” some change in the world.

The understanding that lies behind works of performance autoethnography is that the social world itself is a performed world in which people act out their lives in accordance with the “big scripts” of race, economics, gender and so on. However, within the performance of personal lives there is always the chance to improvise, invent and change – or simply forget your lines and thus make involuntary adaptations. This is why the insertion of personal testimony into the social arena is so important. It challenges the idea that there is just one way to be, just one form of the “good life”, and insists that experience is infinitely varied, particular and creative. As Spry writes, “Performative autoethnography is designed to offer stories alternative to normative, taken for granted assumptions that clog our understanding about the diversity of experience and the systems of power that hold ‘a single story’ in place.” [12]

While there is a good deal of common ground between evocative ethnography and performance ethnography, it is the political commitment of the latter approach that is particularly significant. Performances are not simply retellings of personal narratives. Performance autoethnography also engages with dominant narratives in order to undermine them. “Performers” may use many different voices and often their “texts” are collages (including visual and auditory elements) or bricolages combined of various resources (from childhood memories, letters, extracts from news items, school books, magazines and so on). These productions may lack the narrative coherence of evocative stories.

However, this is a strategic move. The intention is to fracture our understanding of how knowledge works and how performances are enacted.

One of the most influential advocates of performance autoethnography, Norman Denzin, is unashamedly political in his vision for this work. He describes it as “a way of writing, hearing and listening… a return to narrative as a political act.… It uses the words and stories people tell to imagine new worlds.” [13] However, although Denzin is certainly a militant writer, he is deeply sympathetic to spirituality. He credits liberation theology as being one of the sources that has contributed to the participatory politics of resistance that inspires his work. He quotes the author Annie Dillard approvingly in relation to the mysterious and often tragic relation of creation to its creator. [14] He insists that performance autoethnography must be a holistic process that attends to all aspects of life including our relations with the sacred.

A respectful, radical performance pedagogy must honor these views of spirituality. It works to construct a vision of the person, ecology, and the environment that is compatible with these principles. This pedagogy demands a politics of hope, of loving, of caring nonviolence grounded in inclusive moral and spiritual terms. [15]

There is a growing interest in this radical form of autoethnography within theological circles. It is one that allows a diversity of voices within a text and insists that the text must be publicly orientated – its place and work is in the world. For the theological reflector, this approach encourages us to think beyond the personal and therapeutic aspects of autoethnography and embrace its prophetic and disclosive potential. It also encourages us to see our sacred places as theatres in which worship and ritual may be “performed” as political acts.

Autoethnography and theological reflection

I have argued that autoethnographic writing, in all its forms, is a very creative resource for theological reflection. The term might sound technical but the practice of telling stories that shed light on wider issues or move the reader to empathetic understanding of social questions is one that closely resembles very familiar ways of finding theological meaning in everyday events. Such processes are particularly significant within Ignatian traditions of spirituality in which spiritual seekers, like autoethnographers, are taught to pay prayerful attention to the revelations that occur all around them in everyday life and to learn from them (see Sheldrake, 2003). [16] Within evangelical traditions, sermons and testimonies are the sites in which autoethnographic “performances” are often located as people seek to communicate how their epiphanic encounters (“Damascus Road” experiences) carry meaning that they are compelled to share with others. Readers of Anvil are likely to be particularly interested in the opportunities autoethnography provides for the communication of Christian insights from perspectives that are often marginalised or even silenced by dominant western master narratives. The practical theologian Courtney Goto writes of the transforming impact of encouraging her students, many of whom are people of colour, to construct their own narratives of lived faith experience has generated. Students become aware of and own their epistemic advantage:

a critical, perspectival edge created by experiencing oppression personally or empathically, enabling a knower to stand in multiple places, discern what others might neglect, and challenge ignorance or violence. [17]

They find voice to offer generative new interpretations (and critiques) of Christian traditions that present a profound challenge to received wisdom.

A concern for representation and voice is crucial within autoethnography and this challenges the way white western Christians speak of and on behalf of others. A sensitivity to neglected ethical questions, such as how do I understand my own complicity in silence, emerges. This challenge confronts those whose experiences are assumed to be the norm, those who dare to speak from radically different perspectives and all of those who seek to listen prayerfully to voices different from their own. Furthermore, the method encourages exploration and innovation. Autoethnographic writing is frequently iconoclastic and “in your face”. It is not a bad thing for theological reflectors to embrace the edginess of this approach in their work. It helps us consider the modes of self-censorship under which we normally construct the stories of our faith lives – and challenges us to transgress many self-imposed restrictions that limit our response to God’s action in the world.

I conclude this article by borrowing from Denzin’s reflections on what constitutes good autoethnographical writing and adapting them (slightly) for my purposes here. Denzin states that this writing should:

  • unsettle, criticise and challenge taken-for-granted meanings and socially scripted performances;
  • invite ethical and spiritual dialogue while clarifying its own moral positions;
  • create resistance and offer utopian visions about how things can be different; care and be kind; show not tell – using the rule that less is more.
  • be good enough to trust: show interpretative sufficiency, representational adequacy and aspire to authenticity;
  • present political, workable, collective and committed viewpoints – that provoke a response! [18]

Acknowledgement

This article is a revised and expanded version of the chapter “Approaching Autoethnography” in Heather Walton’s Writing Methods in Theological Reflection (London: SCM, 2014), 3–9. It is published here by kind permission of SCM Press.

Heather Walton is a writer and theologian. She is Professor of Theology and Creative Practice at the University of Glasgow. Her recent books include Writing Methods in Theological Reflection (2014), Not Eden: Spiritual Life Writing for this World (2015) and Theological Reflection Methods 2nd Edition with Elaine Graham and Frances Ward (2018). She is a preacher and elder in the Church of Scotland

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Notes

[1] Carolyn Ellis, Tony E. Adams and Arthur P. Bochner, “Autoethnography: An Overview,” in Forum: Qualitative Social Research/Sozialforschung 12:1 (2011), accessed 1 January 2014, http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/1589/3095.
[2] Tami Spry, Body, Paper, Stage: Writing and Performing Autoethnography (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2011), 54.
[3] Ibid., 51.
[4] Norman K. Denzin, “Analytic Autoethnography, or Déjà Vu all Over Again,” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 35:4 (2006): 419–28.
[5] Carolyn Ellis and Arthur P. Bochner, “Autoethnography, Personal Narrative, Reflexivity: Researcher as Subject” in Collecting and Interpreting Qualitative Materials (2nd Edition), ed. Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2003), 199–258.
[6] Ibid.: 213.
[7] Ellis, Adams and Bochner, “Autoethnography: An Overview.”
[8] Carolyn S. Ellis and Arthur P. Bochner, “Analyzing Analytic Autoethnography: An Autopsy,” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 35:4 (2006): 433.
[9] Leon Anderson, “Analytic Autoethnography,” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 35:4 (2006): 374.
[10] Ibid.: 387.
[11] Heather Walton, “We have never been theologians: postsecularism and practical theology,” Practical Theology 11.3 (2018): 218–30.
[12] Spry, Body, Paper, Stage, 56.
[13] Norman K. Denzin, Performance Ethnography: Critical Pedagogy and the Politics of Culture (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2003), 105.
[14] Ibid., 51.
[15] Norman K. Denzin, “Performing [auto] ethnography politically,” Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies 25:3 (2003): 262.
[16] Philip Sheldrake, “Christian Spirituality as a Way of Living Publicly: A Dialectic of the Mystical and Prophetic,” Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality 3:1 (2003): 19–37.
[17] Courtney T. Goto, Taking on Practical Theology: The Idolization of Context and the Hope of Community (Leiden: Brill, 2018), 202; italics original.
[18] Adapted from Denzin, Performance Ethnography, 123–24.

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