Auto ethnography – An empowering methodology for educators

Dyson discusses the methodology of auto ethnography (he writes the term as 2 words) and the use of metaphors in narrative research writing.

Some of the issues dealt with in the article:

  • The advantages and disadvantages of researching areas in which the researcher is involved professionally and emotionally.
  • The question of objectivity – should research of this kind portray objectivity?

The author describes the process through which he understood that research through personal narrative is legitimate:

“With this understanding of narrative in mind I began to recognise that the knowledge, which I was constructing – through my own experiences, encounters and interactions with the world – was legitimate. It was my reality that I was a part of, yet also apart from, that I was constructing and, dare I say it, creatively inventing through the narrative text generated using language” (p. 37).

Dyson chooses to quote Polkinghorne (1997, p.7):

“No longer are knowledge statements considered to be mirrored reflections of reality as it is in itself; rather, they are human constructions of models or maps of reality.” This comment blends in well with the other affirmations for the legitimacy of narrative I have found. It connects with the claims I have written about that in postmodernist thinking about research there is no one truth, every claim to knowledge is in doubt until it proves its validity. 

Dyson describes the process, how he came to adopt auto ethnography for his research, for example:  

“As my understanding of the narrative approach developed I began to recognise that it was an appropriate means of telling my story” (p. 37).

“To resolve this I visited with the ‘big guns in research’ i.e. the authorities in this narrative /auto ethnographic style. Reading the work of Ellis and Bochner convinced me that…” (p. 37).

In reading the researchers of narrative and auto ethnography (Denzin, 1997; Denzin and Lincoln, 2000; Ellis, 1997; Ellis and Bochner, 2000; Patton, 2002; Reed-Danahay, 1997; Richardson, 1995; Tierney and Lincoln, 1997; Van Maanen, 1995) I began to understand that the subjective was legitimate and nothing can ever be totally impersonal, or totally independent, of the writer. In realising this my focus as a researcher evolved a little more as I came to understand what could be achieved in using such a personal and powerful tool as auto ethnography” (p. 38).

What is auto ethnography?

Dyson uses the same definitions as Deunte:

Auto ethnography as described by Ellis and Bochner is a genre of writing that “displays multiple layers of consciousness connecting the personal to the cultural” (p. 739) They claim that the distinctions between the cultural and the personal become blurred as the author changes the focus and moves back and forth between looking outward and looking inward” (p. 38).

“Reed-Danahay (1997) suggests that “One of the main characteristics of an auto ethnographic perspective is that the auto ethnographer is a boundary-crosser and the role can be characterised as that of a dual identity” (p. 3). In presenting a history of auto ethnography Reed-Danahay (1997) identifies the many different understandings of the term. She defines her use of the term as the form of self-narrative that places the self within a social context. It is both a method and a text in a similar way to ethnography but the self is embedded” (p. 38).

Dyson acknowledges the changes taking place in himself as a person and as a researcher as he proceeded on his research journey . He used his growing set of self understandings to foster perceptions into the cultural group of which he is a member.

Within auto ethnographic writing the author and researcher necessarily reveals his or her hand, or voice, up front. As explained by Ellis and Bochner (2000), “The goal is to enter and document the moment-to-moment, concrete details of a life. That’s an important way of knowing as well” (p. 761). Further to this they suggest that “Auto ethnography provides an avenue for doing something meaningful for yourself and the world” (p. 761)” (p. 39).

The important point for me here is not to read these points about autoethnography (as I have already read them in different words in different places) but to see how Dyson presents them explicitly as part of his explanation  of the methodology chosen by him.

“In the telling of my story I am not declaring my emerging knowledge as scientific truth, or as a discovery beyond me, but rather as my creative construction of a reality, which I have lived through” (p. 39).

 “…an auto ethnography is a presentation of one person’s view, or map, of reality, constructed around and through other people. It is a good story, which does not establish truth, like an argument, but presents verisimilitude, that is lifelikeness” (p. 46).

“Rather than be a seeker of ‘the truth’ the auto ethnographer reveals ‘the voice of the insider’ who has sought new knowledge and understandings of the world and found what was unknown to them when they began the journey. The credibility of such research is established through the verisimilitude revealed and the ‘ringing true’ of the quality story related” (p. 46).

Writing in first person

Ellis suggests that authors aren’t encouraged to write articles in first person (Ellis & Bochner, 2000). Malin supports this by declaring that we have now come a long way from the time we felt compelled to refer to ourselves, in third person, as the ‘researcher’ (Malin, 1999). I prepared my dissertation and now write in the first person as much as possible because I believe that writing in first person brings with it a personal accountability, an active voice, presenting a truthworthy narrative, which contains the pitfalls as well as the strengths” (p. 40).

Dyson discusses the danger associated with the exposure of writing in first person. He acknowledges that the researcher becomes vulnerable to criticism but affirms the power of the first person possesses in communicating with the reader.

The use of metaphor in narrative writin

Dyson chose the metaphor of a journey for his research story, in particular the journey of a mountain stream. He believes that metaphor deepens our thought and our knowing and can enable us to arrive at understands beyond those we expected were possible. Metaphor enhances and intensifies reflection. Connections between the journey of the mountain stream and Dyson’s research story are presented in a table on page 44.

“The auto ethnographer, like other qualitative researchers, uses metaphor to order thoughts, experiences and to construct a reality about lived experiences rather than use particular procedures, to generate formal and empirical truths. Metaphor is used because of its power to bring new things into consciousness leading to initially unperceived knowledge. It generates lifelikeness and has the power to move a human being to new levels of consciousness as the various parts of a journey are pondered and unravelled” (p. 46).  

The whole story is never told…

 There are risks involved in telling personal and professional stories and seldom can the whole story ever be told. Although there are parts that should, or can, never be shared on moral and ethical grounds what is told, is told, from my perspective with my filters engaged” (p. 44).

Dyson describes the stage when a researcher sees things differently from the way that he saw them initially. The life of the researcher in turn changes because of this new outlook on the world. He claims that the change occurs as a result of a new level of personal conciousness but forms a novel “‘worldview’ rather than just a ‘me view’” (p. 45).

Dyson, M. (2007). My story in a profession of stories: Autoethnography – an empowering methodology for educators. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 32(1), 36-48. Retrieved from 

4 thoughts on “Auto ethnography – An empowering methodology for educators

  1. Hi Anna,
    I had no idea anybody was really reading my study ramblings!
    Thanks and good luck with your research,

  2. Well, not since a lot of time, only since I discovered google blogsearch! But I’ll be watching you (in the most friendly way that you may imagine, of course). Keep the pace and I’ll follow:-))

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