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Self in a Discipline – Autoethnography

I have to touch this topic. And once the tactile sense is activated, there is no going back.

Autoethnography. Poke it with a stick. That is what a child would do. See if it responds. See if goo oozes from what certainly must have been alive once.

smiling girl with a stick

It has been a long road from undergraduate days to where I am now, getting ready to launch a business that celebrates and empowers women to critically examine their own stories within a cultural frame.

Long Roads and Infinite Paths

As an undergraduate anthropologist in the 1970s I would not have uttered the word, autoethnography, as rebuke would have swiftly followed from my cadre of mentors, “Real Anthropologists, Goddammit!” Every last one of my professors in anthropology were not only great teachers, but were first and foremost researchers, too, whom the profession had so declared, “Had mastered removing as much of their cultural bias as was possible from their work of participant-observation in another culture.” What I did not know when I entered the wide-hall of one “wing” of the third floor of Stone Hall for the first time I found a portal that, should the professors choose to allow me entrance, would connect me with an academy that had existed beyond any one time or location for the last millennium.

I didn’t really yet appreciate that I would be working with professors, all but one tenured, and never have another class where someone is teaching me about what the experts in a subject say. I would be working with the experts.

Critical thinkers every last one of them. Wonderful instructors (even the bad one) who knew a student has to master the tools before being turned loose on practicing the discipline. They taught critical thinking, Jack, Bob, Rich, Mike, and my graduate advisor, Myrdene, were all skilled. Even the assistant professors who went through grist mill of assistant professor-land taught me a great deal. The department was so small at that time that it truly was a small community with the students being more apprentices than students. Not even all graduate programs provide the personal education and guidance that allow professors individually and collectively know the students.

I was a born anthropologist. Anthropologists are born not made, you see. But recognition and credentials help too.

Cultural Observation

Most people grow out of cultural observation by the time they begin to speak.

“Mom mom ma,” mouths the breastfeeding infant. Mom has forever acquired the “good, warm, good, full, not hungry, warm, good, safe” goodness the infant will ever use as a single feeling that has all those words stuffed inside and is evoked in a microsecond whenever Mom is encountered or thought of. It is no longer a conscious assessment, it just is.

Baby anthropologists. also dripping milk from their lips, append a note with an asterisk,[date, time] to the “good, warm, good, full…” micro-momentary, cellular level mantra, that with conscious assessment reflects, “So she says.”

Finding your voice is what they always tell writers is the key to successful writing. What they don’t tell you is that the real hard part is finding the voice in someone else’s head and getting that voice to listen to your voice.

Convey your identity but leave enough space for the reader to insert her identity too.

Voice. Did I mention voice?


Okay to get technical for a moment. Ethnographic methods. When you do ethnography that is what you use. It is the same for autoethnography. Who, what, when, where, why? how? Is this the first time you have noticed this? Is this a routine behavior? Is there a pattern as to when and where this occurs? Is this documented in notes, audio, photos? How do you know what you know?

I questioned the divisions between observation and participation, in the participant-observation technique that is the basis of all anthropological method, as well as the necessity of being a non-member of a culture in order to get the distance to study the culture as well as the need to do the research in a language that is not your native tongue.

While I totally understood the wisdom of distance from your subject, I also questioned whether language difference and foreignness were enough to create the distance necessary for impartiality of observation. I also often thought during my student days that the personal biases we carry with us are as disabling as cultural biases.

Growth in the practice of autoethnography leads me to believe that I was not the only one thinking such thoughts. Yes, it is good to study culture from afar, at least from a vantage far enough removed to be able to escape emotional and cultural blinders. It is also good to admit individual biases exist. It is equally important to note that individual perspectives can unlock understanding of patterns of information available through no other channel of investigation.

Self in a Discipline

Putting self into everything we do seems to be pretty trendy. The global epidemic has us all living in self alone matters universe. We are social beings but if we are doing social distancing properly we are not coming into close contact with people outside of those in our household, or bubble.

This is not normal. I am not sure what it will do to us as a culture. We are overly focused on people who are concerned only with themselves. I might interpret it differently if this preoccupation was focused on people who were concerned about individual impact on culture, about knitting the mesh of culture with our actions rather than petty preoccupations with self.

Self-agency is a focus I encourage others, particularly women, to develop. Agency of self as a cultural node should be a no brainer, but self-agency was historically disavowed as appropriate behavior for women who were supposed to define themselves through others. Nothing wrong with doing stuff for, or with, others, but here the framing of an action should be internal as an external frame is more like a cage than a support structure.

So, autoethnography is conscious examination of self-action in a cultural process. Awareness is key. Put yourself into your research. We have impact through all we do, we might as well document and examine that impact. If we don’t, we can’t be sure anyone else will. Do, document, share.

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