Autoethnography as Method
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Autoethnography as Method

Heewon Chang

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Autoethnography as Method

Heewon Chang

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This methods book will guide the reader through the process of conducting and producing an autoethnographic study through the understanding of self, other, and culture. Readers will be encouraged to follow hands-on, though not prescriptive, steps in data collection, analysis, and interpretation with self-reflective prewriting exercises and self-narrative writing exercises to produce their own autoethnographic work. Chang offers a variety of techniques for gathering data on the self—from diaries to culture grams to interviews with others—and shows how to transform this information into a study that looks for the connection with others present in a diverse world. She shows how the autoethnographic process promotes self-reflection, understanding of multicultural others, qualitative inquiry, and narrative writing. Samples of published autoethnographies provide exemplars for the novice researcher to follow.

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PART I Conceptual Framework

DOI: 10.4324/9781315433370-1
Consisting of three chapters, Part I lays out the conceptual framework of the book, which is grounded on four assumptions: (1) culture is a group-oriented concept by which self is always connected with others; (2) the reading and writing of self-narratives provides a window through which self and others can be examined and understood; (3) telling one’s story does not automatically result in the cultural understanding of self and others, which only grows out of in-depth cultural analysis and interpretation; and (4) autoethnography is an excellent instructional tool to help not only social scientists but also practitioners—such as teachers, medical personnel, counselors, and human services workers—gain profound understanding of self and others and function more effectively with others from diverse cultural backgrounds.
Chapter 1 elaborates on the concept of culture as a web of self and others. In this chapter, three elements—culture, self, and others—are explored in depth. Following the introduction of multiple perspectives on culture, the concepts of self and others are discussed. In Chapter 2, given the heightened interest in self-narratives in the social sciences, I argue that self-narratives can be used as cultural texts through which the cultural understanding of self and others can be gained. A variety of self-narratives are introduced and discussed in terms of genre, authorship, thematic focus, and writing style. Finally, in Chapter 3, autoethnography is singled out from among the many self-narrative varieties and compared and contrasted with other types of self-narratives. Readers will learn about the benefits of this research method as well as pitfalls to avoid when they adopt autoethnography as a research method. Readers who prefer to delve immediately into methodology may skip Part I and go directly to Part II.

1 Culture: A Web of Self and Others

DOI: 10.4324/9781315433370-2
The concept of culture fundamentally affects how we conduct a cultural study. It shapes our research questions, our sources of data, our analysis/interpretation, and our writing. So it is appropriate to begin this research guidebook with a discussion of the concept of culture. Since anthropologists invented the notion of culture, innumerable definitions and concepts have entered the literature of anthropology. My intention in this chapter is not to provide a comprehensive list of definitions, but to focus on concepts of culture that address people as interactive agents. After introducing various perspectives on the locus of culture—where culture resides—I shift my focus of discussion to “self,” and then “others,” both vital agents and participants in culture.

The Concepts of Culture

“I’m a typical American just like everyone else in this room,” a student of mine proclaimed with an air of certainty in her voice. Without flinching, another student declared that her “individual culture” represents who she is. These are common statements that I hear from students of multicultural education when they are asked to define themselves culturally. Whether these statements accurately convey the meaning of “culture” will be discussed later. These statements represent two perspectives on culture. The first student’s view associates culture with a group of people, in this case, Americans. Her statement implies that there is a definable American culture that she shares with other “Americans” who are identified by clear boundaries. Typical assumed boundaries for culture include nationality, ethnicity, language, and geography. In this case, she selected nationality and geographic boundaries to define her own people as “everyone else in this [American college class] room.”
On the other hand, the second student considers culture from an individual’s point of view. To her, the definition of culture begins with her. Her belief, behaviors, and perspective define who she is. She does not articulate how her “individual culture” overlaps with others and how different her individual culture is from others. Despite her lack of attention to relationships with others in the society, her focus on individuals draws our attention to the fact that people are neither blind followers of a predefined set of social norms, cultural clones of their previous generations, nor copycats of their cultural contemporaries. Rather, her perspective implies that individuals have autonomy to interpret and alter cultural knowledge and skills acquired from others and to develop their own version of culture while staying in touch with social expectations.
These two different perspectives of culture pursue answers to the same question that anthropologists have asked for over a century: “Where is culture located?” De Munck (2000) expands the question: Is culture located “out there, in the public world” or “in here, in the private sphere of the self”? The question of cultural locus may inadvertently associate culture with something tangible to locate. This association is not intended at all. Although defining culture is a tricky business in our contemporary, complex society, as Agar (2006) agonizes, I do not relegate culture to the physical realm of cultural artifacts. Before delving into what I mean by culture, however, I will discuss how anthropologists have tried to answer this locus question because their answers have important implications for the later discussion of autoethnography.

Symbiosis of Culture and People

First, I need to establish a nonnegotiable premise: the concept of culture is inherently group-oriented, because culture results from human interactions with each other. The notion of “individual culture” does not, and should not, imply that culture is about the psychological workings of an isolated individual; rather, it refers to individual versions of group cultures that are formed, shared, retained, altered, and sometimes shed through human interactions. These interactions may take place in “local communities of practice” in which “what particular persons do [is] in mutual influence upon one another as they associate regularly together” (Erickson, 2004, p. 38). Gajjala (2004) would argue that face-to-face interactions are not a prerequisite to the creation of culture in a highly globalized digital age when interactions can be facilitated by digital means of communication—such as e-mail, telephone, and the Internet. Her cyber-ethnographic study of listservs for South Asian professional women demonstrates that a cyber cultural community can be formed and undergo a transformation into something that is similar to a local cultural community. Whether interactions are conventional or alternative, the fundamental premise that culture has something to do with human interactions within a group is not challenged.
De Munck (2000) expresses the symbiotic relationship between culture and people as follows:
Obviously, one does not exist as a psyche—a self—outside of culture; nor does culture exist independently of its bearers
. Culture would cease to exist without the individuals who make it up
. Culture requires our presence as individuals. With this symbiosis, self and culture together make each other up and, in that process, make meaning. (pp. 1–2)
Resonating with this perspective, Rosaldo (1984) declares that we “are not individuals first but social persons” (p. 151).
Although the premise that culture and people are intertwined may be indisputable, it does not produce an equally unequivocal answer to the question: “Where is culture located?” This question has been entertained since the beginning of anthropology as an academic discipline, and answers are divided into two groups: one argues that culture is located outside of individuals, and the other that culture is located inside people’s minds. These two different orientations produce different implications as to how we treat the concept of culture.

Culture Outside Individuals

The first orientation—culture outside individuals—considers culture as a bounded whole, with which a group of people is defined and characterized. Individual differences are minimized at the expense of a coherent picture for the whole, and culture is seen to be observable and presentable as a public façade of a group. This view stems from the initial anthropological interest of studying other cultures by looking in from outside and is integrated into Kroeber and Kluckhohn’s classic definition of culture originally published in 1952. The added italics accentuate this perspective of culture:
Culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behavior, acquired and transmitted by symbols constituting the distinctive achievement of human groups, including their embodiment in artifacts; the essential core of culture consists of traditional (i.e., historically derived and selected) ideas and especially their attached values; culture systems may, on the one hand, be considered as products of action, on the other as conditioning elements of further action. (1966, p. 357)
This “looking-in-from-outside” perspective assumes that other cultures are observable. It creates the distance between anthropologists and local natives and, in turn, engenders the acute sense of difference and of clear boundaries between these two parties. As a result, anthropologists end up developing a sometimes essentialist and often exotic profile of culture to describe a bounded group of people, focusing on observable differences in custom, social structure, language, religion, art, and other material and nonmaterial characteristics. The oft-cited definition by Sir Edward Burnett Tylor (1871), who is characterized as “the founder of academic anthropology in the English-speaking world and the author of the first general anthropology textbook” (Harris, 1975, p. 144), also presents culture as a “complex whole” binding a group of people:
 taken in its wide ethnographic sense is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society. (Tylor, p. 1)
Tylor’s definition illustrates the very point of this perspective, associating culture with an entire group of people.
De Munck (2000) identifies three versions of this culture-outside-individuals perspective: (1) “Culture is superorganic,” (2) “Culture is public,” and (3) “The size, position, and strength of social networks” affect the culture of a group (pp. 8–17). The first perspective, superorganic culture, still popular nowadays, postulates that a set group of people is identified with a culture and that culture has a life of its own, dictating, regulating, and controlling people to maintain inner-group “homogeneity.” This perspective is illustrated by Benedict’s two renowned works. In Patterns of Culture (1934) she classified cultures by two types—the orderly and calm “Apollonian” type and the emotional and passionate “Dionysian” type—and characterized Pueblo cultures of the American Southwest as the former and the Native American cultures of the Great Plains as the latter. Her notion of culture as a representation of a whole group also came through clearly in her discussion of Japanese “national culture” in The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946). My first student’s notion of “American” culture is not far from this perspective of superorganic culture. So is Spring’s notion of the U.S. “general” culture that is expected to consist of “behaviors, beliefs, and experiences common to most citizens” (2004, p. 4).
The second version of the culture-outside-individuals perspective is argued by Geertz, who sees culture forming in the process of people’s interactive communication and meaning-making. Geertz (1973) holds that “culture is public because meaning is
. [C]ulrure consists of socially established structures of meaning in terms of which people do such things as signal conspiracies and join them or perceive insults and answer them
” (pp. 12–13). For him, a person’s behaviors cannot be appropriately understood and responded to unless these behaviors are publicly exhibited and others correctly interpret their meanings using the standards familiar to both parties.
The third version of the culture-outside-individuals perspective is apparent in Thompson’s work, according to De Munck (2000). Thompson argues that “ensembles” of soci...