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An Autoethnographic Approach

Gadamer (1975) suggests that researchers should acknowledge their values and prejudices as a first step, being aware that these are embedded in their experiences of knowledge formation and also in their epistemological values. Hamdan (2009) concurs and adds that a researcher’s background and personal story must be declared in order to be transparent with the reader. The introduction to this chapter sets the scene for the multifaceted nature of the formation of my feminist identity. Indeed, the realisation that men and women are “different” and that this “difference” varies across cultures, along with my frustration with gender inequality in the Middle East and the West and, furthermore, my ambition to dispel myths about women and Islam created a challenging feminist soul within myself. Therefore, taking a feminist autoethnographic approach in writing up this chapter seemed like a natural process.

Like many terms used by social scientists, the meanings and applications of “autoethnography” have evolved in a manner that makes precise definition and application difficult (Wall 2006; Ellis 2004; Anderson 2006). The term has evolved to encompass an ethnographic style of writing similar to personal narrative or autobiographical writing. Autobiographical research methods have become increasingly known as autoethnography and have been promoted, influenced and developed by a number of avid autoethnographic writers (Ellis 2004; Bochner 2000; Holt 2003). According to Wall (2006: 1)—

Autoethnography is an emerging qualitative research method that allows the author to write in a highly personalized style, drawing on his or her experience to extend understanding about a societal phenomenon. Autoethnography is grounded in postmodern philosophy and is linked to growing debate about reflexivity and voice in social research. The intent of autoethnography is to acknowledge the inextricable link between the personal and the cultural and to make room for non-traditional forms of inquiry and expression.

There is considerable latitude with respect to how autoethnography is conducted and what product results, as autoethnographers tend to vary in their emphasis on “auto-” (self), “-ethno-” (the cultural link), and “-graphy” (the application of a research process) (Wall 2006; Ellis and Bochner 2000; Reed-Danahay 1997). Indeed, some scholars follow a more evocative and emotional narrative approach (Holt 2003; Sparks 2000; Ellis 2004; Bochner 2000) whilst others argue for a more analytical autoethno?graphic approach (Anderson 2006) with a rigorous scientific methodology (Duncan 2004).

Evocative autoethnographers’ personal narrative relies exclusively on a highly individual, evocative writing style, focusing on the (“auto-”), omitting any reference to research conventions and leaving the reader to make his or her own societal or cultural applications (Wall 2006). Evocative autoethnography requires considerable narrative and expressive skills, well- crafted prose, poetry and performance. Authoethnographers also advocate conscious positioning and reflexivity so that it is appreciated that authors write from a particular position at a specific time in their lives. In this way, they are freed from trying to write a single text in which everything is said at once to everyone (Richardson 1994, 2000a, b). The aim is to allow readers into the autoethnographer’s intimate world so that they can reflect upon their lives in relation to hers/his (Sparks 2000). However, autoethnography is still quite vulnerable to the hegemonic pressures of more canonical, powerful discourses within mainstream methodologies and traditional epistemologies (Holt 2003). It has been criticised by scholars as being self-indulgent, individualistic and egocentric (Hufford 1995). Furthermore, the methodology of first-person narrative scholarship has been viewed as limiting human inquiry to what “I” can speak about my subject and subjectivity (Coffey 1999).

Anderson (2006) believes that the advocacy for evocative or emotional autoethnography may have eclipsed other versions of what autoethnography could be and obscures ways in which it may fit productively in other traditions of social enquiry. In his article titled, Analytic autoethnography, Anderson (2006) proposes five key features of analytic autoethnography that differentiate it from evocative autoethnography and place it within a traditional symbolic qualitative enquiry, whilst also making it a distinct subgenre within the broader practice of analytic ethnography. The key features are complete-member researcher status,1 analytic reflexivity, narrative visibility of the researcher’s self, dialogue with informants beyond the self and commitment to theoretical analysis. Duncan (2004) also conducted an autoethnographical study that dramatically differed from the work of evocative autoethnographers. She carried out a methodologically rigorous study focusing on the (“-graphy”) process as a means to establish the quality of her autoethnography. That is, by addressing six key issues— study boundaries, instrumental utility, construct validity, external validity, reliability and scholarship—Duncan (2004) believed she was able to secure legitimacy and representation for her account and avoid criticism that other evocative autoethnographers face, therefore, placing herself “at the conservative end of the continuum of autoethnographic reporting” (2004: 8).

Feminist scholarship generally includes the experience of the researcher as part of the research process and discusses the power relations involved during this vulnerable process for both the researcher and the researched (Allen and Piercy 2005; Mauthner and Doucet 2003, 1998; Doucet and Mauthner 2008; Oakley 1981). Indeed, Allen and Piercy (2005: 156) explain that by “telling a story on ourselves, we risk exposure to our peers, subject ourselves to scrutiny and ridicule, and relinquish some of our sense of control over our own narratives”. However, Allen and Piercy (2005), among other feminist scholars, argue that women’s voices have been historically silenced in both society and scholarship, which has led women’s lives to be misrepresented, distorted and repressed. Therefore, feminist scholars represent and reflect upon their experience to validate and honour their own lives and the lives of other women “in and on their own terms” and with “their own voices” (Mauthner and Doucet 2003) particularly when the status quo reflects a version of reality which often excludes women’s everyday experiences (Stanley and Wise 1993).

The connection between feminism and autoethnography offering a more “fully human” method of inquiry has led Allen and Piercy to define feminist autoethnography as “the explicit reflection on one’s personal experience to break outside the circle of conventional social science and confront, court, and coax that aching pain or haunting memory that one does not understand about one’s own experience. It is ideally suited for investigating hidden or sensitive topics” (2005: 159). Given my personal story as a feminist early career researcher and the themes of this book, the autoethnographic form of writing seemed to fit what I was looking for in order to share my narrative. I felt that the feminist autoethnographic philosophy and methodology offered me the opportunity to provide a realistic account of my feminist academic experience, before, during and after my PhD. Therefore, for the academic purpose of writing this chapter, my “auto-ethno-graphy” will follow a more evocative style, which uses the self as the only data source (Holt 2003; Sparks 2000; Wall 2008). Whilst, as mentioned, this approach has been criticised for being too self-indulgent and narcissistic (Coffey 1999), I view my feminist autoethnography as a type of autobiographical method in the reflexive qualitative tradition where the researcher and the subject are one (Richardson 2000b).

Whilst exercising “the practice of going back and forth between inner vulnerable experience and outward social, historical, and cultural aspects of life, searching for deeper connections and understanding” (Allen and Piercy 2005: 156), I hope to capture readers’ hearts with the journey upon which I am embarking—a journey which I have an emotional and undeniable connection with and which I reflexively share. However, it is important to highlight that the purpose of this chapter is not to advocate a particular style of (feminist) autoethnographic writing, as I believe that both the evocative and analytical genres can be utilised individually, variably and simultaneously depending on the topic discussed and the audience being addressed. Like Wall (2006) I began feeling uncertain regarding my knowledge and presentation as “[f]or many, especially for women being educated as researchers, voice is an acknowledgement that they have something to say” (Clandinin and Connelly 1994: 423). However, the potential power of autoethnography in highlighting the tumultuous journey of a feminist early career researcher was inspiring.

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