Alia R.Tyner-Mullings


While it is an ethnographic method on its own, an autoethnography can also be a good place to begin an ethnographic investigation. Through it, you can begin to situate yourself within the larger structural and social system. It allows you to explore your own positionality before you begin to examine the lives of others as an autothenography is a way to turn ethnography on yourself and to learn about your life in the same way you might learn about someone else’s. The process of creating an autoethnography allows you to be reflective on what makes you who you are and how you came to be. Through this process, an authoethnography can also help you to look at the larger context in which you live. [1]

Autoethnography is an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyze (graphy) personal experience (auto) in order to understand cultural experience (ethno) (Ellis, 2004; Holman Jones, 2005). This approach challenges canonical ways of doing research and representing others (Spry, 2001) and treats research as a political, socially-just and socially-conscious act (Adams & Holman Jones, 2008). A researcher uses tenets of autobiography and ethnography to do and write autoethnography. Thus, as a method, autoethnography is both process and product.[2]


History of Autoethnography

So how did autoethnography come to be?  In the 1980s, scholars introduced new and abundant opportunities to reform social science and reconceive the objectives and forms of social science inquiry. Scholars became increasingly troubled by social science’s ontological, epistemological, and axiological limitations (Ellis & Bochner, 2000). Furthermore, there was an increasing need to resist colonialist, sterile research impulses of authoritatively entering a culture, exploiting cultural members, and then recklessly leaving to write about the culture for monetary and/or professional gain, while disregarding relational ties to cultural members (Conquergood, 1991; Ellis, 2007; Riedmann, 1993).

Gradually, scholars across a wide spectrum of disciplines began to consider what social sciences would become if they were closer to literature than to physics, if they proffered stories rather than theories, and if they were self-consciously value-centered rather than pretending to be value free (Bochner, 1994). Many of these scholars turned to autoethnography because they were seeking a positive response to critiques of canonical ideas about what research is and how research should be done. In particular, they wanted to concentrate on ways of producing meaningful, accessible, and evocative research grounded in personal experience, research that would sensitize readers to issues of identity politics, to experiences shrouded in silence, and to forms of representation that deepen our capacity to empathize with people who are different from us (Ellis & Bochner, 2000). Autoethnographers recognize the innumerable ways personal experience influences the research process. For instance, a researcher decides who, what, when, where, and how to research, decisions necessarily tied to institutional requirements (e.g., Institutional Review Boards), resources (e.g., funding), and personal circumstance (e.g., a researcher studying cancer because of personal experience with cancer). A researcher may also change names and places for protection (Fine, 1993), compress years of research into a single text, and construct a study in a pre-determined way (e.g., using an introduction, literature review, methods section, findings, and conclusion; Tullis Owen, McRae, Adams & Vitale, 2009). Even though some researchers still assume that research can be done from a neutral, impersonal, and objective stance (Atkinson, 1997; Buzard, 2003; Delamont, 2009), most now recognize that such an assumption is not tenable (Bochner, 2002; Denzin & Lincoln, 2000; Rorty, 1982). Consequently, autoethnography is one of the approaches that acknowledges and accommodates subjectivity, emotionality, and the researcher’s influence on research, rather than hiding from these matters or assuming they don’t exist.

Furthermore, scholars began recognizing that different kinds of people possess different assumptions about the world—a multitude of ways of speaking, writing, valuing and believing—and that conventional ways of doing and thinking about research were narrow, limiting, and parochial. These differences can stem from race (Anzaldúa, 1987; Boylorn, 2006; Davis, 2009), gender (Blair, Brown & Baxter, 1994; Keller, 1995), sexuality (Foster, 2008; Glave, 2005), age (Dossa, 1999; Paulson & Willig, 2008), ability (Couser, 1997; Gerber, 1996), class (Hooks, 2000; Dykins Callahan, 2008), education (Delpit, 1996; Valenzuela, 1999), or religion (Droogsma, 2007; Minkowitz, 1995). Often, those who advocate and insist on canonical forms of doing and writing research are advocating a White, masculine, heterosexual, middle/upper-classed, Christian, cis-gendered and able-bodied perspective. Following these conventions, a researcher not only disregards other ways of knowing but also implies that other ways are unsatisfactory and invalid. Autoethnography, on the other hand, expands and opens up a wider lens on the world, eschewing rigid definitions of what constitutes meaningful and useful research; this approach also helps us understand how the kinds of people we claim, or are perceived, to be influence interpretations of what we study, how we study it, and what we say about our topic (Adams, 2005; Wood, 2009).


The Structure of Autoethnographies

As described above, autoethnography combines characteristics of autobiography and ethnography and in writing an autobiography, an author retroactively and selectively writes about past experiences. Usually, the author does not live through these experiences solely to make them part of a published document; rather, these experiences are assembled using hindsight (Bruner, 1993; Denzin, 1989, Freeman, 2004). In writing, the author also may interview others as well as consult with texts like photographs, journals, and recordings to help with recall (Delany, 2004; Didion, 2005; Goodall, 2006; Herrmann, 2005).

Most often, autobiographers write about “epiphanies”—remembered moments perceived to have significantly impacted the trajectory of a person’s life (Bochner & Ellis, 1992; Couser, 1997; Denzin, 1989), times of existential crises that forced a person to attend to and analyze lived experience (Zaner, 2004), and events after which life does not seem quite the same. While epiphanies are self-claimed phenomena in which one person may consider an experience transformative while another may not, these epiphanies reveal ways a person could negotiate “intense situations” and “effects that linger—recollections, memories, images, feelings—long after a crucial incident is supposedly finished” (Bochner, 1984, p.595). This is one justification for focusing the autoethnography on a student’s path to college and how they arrived at our school like we do at Guttman Community College. When researchers do autoethnography, they retrospectively and selectively write about epiphanies that stem from, or are made possible by, being part of a culture and/or by possessing a particular cultural identity. However, in addition to telling their audiences about experiences, autoethnographers often are required by social science publishing conventions to analyze these experiences. As Mitch Allen says, an autoethnographer must

“look at experience analytically. Otherwise [you’re] telling [your] story—and that’s nice—but people do that on Oprah [a U.S.-based television program] every day. Why is your story more valid than anyone else’s? What makes your story more valid is that you are a researcher. You have a set of theoretical and methodological tools and a research literature to use. That’s your advantage. If you can’t frame it around these tools and literature and just frame it as ‘my story,’ then why or how should I privilege your story over anyone else’s I see 25 times a day on TV?” (personal interview, May 4, 2006)[3]

Autoethnographers must not only use their methodological tools and research literature to analyze experience, but also must consider ways others may experience similar epiphanies; they must use personal experience to illustrate facets of cultural experience, and, in so doing, make characteristics of a culture familiar for insiders and outsiders. To accomplish this might require comparing and contrasting personal experience against existing research (RONAI, 1995, 1996), interviewing cultural members (Foster, 2006; Marvasti, 2006; Tillmann-Healy, 2001), and/or examining relevant cultural artifacts (Boylorn, 2008; Denzin, 2006).

In her piece “Evaluating Ethnography,” Laurel Richardson examines the divide that has persisted between literary and scientific writing (253). This is similar to the division that has existed between academic and personal writing. She notes the “oxymoronic” naming of genres that have tried to bridge this gap, thus blurring distinctions among categories such as “creative nonfiction; faction; ethnographic fiction; the nonfiction novel; and true fiction” (253). And she seeks to lay out the criteria she uses to judge ethnography’s success.[4]

In attempting to create new standards that allow writers to move more freely in their ethnographic work, Richardson establishes the following as important evaluative criteria. She believes the work should: make a substantive contribution, have aesthetic merit, have reflexivity, make an impact, and express a reality (254). In this way, Richardson intends to show the related nature of scientific research and creative expression.

Arthur Bochner responds to Richardson in “Criteria Against Ourselves” and sets up his own evaluation criteria for what he terms “alternative ethnography,” another name often assigned to ethnography that deviates from traditional social science norms. He sees alternative ethnographies as “narratives of the self” that “extract meaning from experience rather than depict experience exactly as it was lived” (270). When looking at this personal writing, he wants abundant concrete detail, structurally complex narratives, emotional credibility, a tale of two selves, and ethical self-consciousness (270-71).

In “Evocative Autoethnography: Writing Emotionally About Our Lives,” Carolyn Ellis describes her gradual departure from traditional sociological methods into an approach that is more personally meaningful. She achieves this balance in her writing by using multiple voices, starting and restarting to establish her point of view through both analysis and storytelling. “I made myself begin again in an autoethnographic voice that concentrates on telling a personal, evocative story to provoke others’ stories and adds blood and tissue to the abstract bones of the theoretical discourse” (117). Throughout the piece, she clearly establishes a point of view, which she emphasizes in many of her works about autoethnography, “I think that sociology can be emotional, personal, therapeutic, interesting, engaging, evocative, reflexive, helpful, concrete, and connected to the world of everyday experience” (120). She aims to be true to her feelings, move away from time ordered structures and convey her emotions (128).

Ellis draws on interviews, notes, conversations, and diaries to construct her writing and seeks to find herself in the context of a larger world. “The inner workings of the self must be investigated in reciprocal relationship with the other: concrete action, dialogue, emotion, and thinking are featured, but they are represented within relationships and institutions, very much impacted by history, social structure, and culture, which themselves are dialectically revealed through action, thought, and language” (133).

She seeks to find value in autoethnography through the impact it has on her audience. “A story’s ‘validity’ can be judged by whether it evokes in readers a feeling that the experience described is authentic and lifelike, believable and possible; the story’s generalizability can be judged by whether it speaks to readers about their experience” (133). She believes that by sharing stories this way, we open up a world that allows others to share their stories (134).

To accomplish this, your first attempt at autoethngraphy might begin with Allen’s simple retelling of a “story”. This story connects with something powerful in your life and may lead you to a particular conclusion about how your individual world works and how that is affected by larger social institutions. If you are able to do multiple drafts, the opportunity for reflection grows and the connection to larger social institutions is more easily made.[5]


Preparing for the Autoethnograhy

In writing an autoethnography, you will be asked to analyze your epiphany, position in the subculture or the educational path you are currently on as well as the positioning of others and how it might affect your perspective. Autoethnographic analysis in this case might include interviewing other members of the subculture, conducting field observation, analyzing textual materials, investigating histories, and engaging in self-reflection. Previous involvement in or attachment to a subculture provides a vested interest in the project, a sense of authority, and a position from which to analyze.[6]

When conducting autoethnographic research, as opposed to traditional ethnographic research, you start out with a certain amount of knowledge about the subculture or epiphany you are investigating because you have some expertise about it. At the same time, because it is necessary to explain the subculture to those who are unfamiliar with it, you must also learn how to translate that knowledge to an outside audience. In addition, when considering any observations you might make, you need to look at the subculture afresh and describe elements you may have taken for granted. You must account for rituals, language and subtleties that make it operate as something unique and situated. You might consider interviewing members of the subculture who inhabit a different position than you do, and you can also gather new perspectives from insiders that will help you to further articulate your own ideas and question your own authority in communicating exactly what the subculture is. Interviewing and conducting observations can both empower you and decenter you from your own experience, forcing you to question and revise your representation of your experience to an intended audience (your instructor and classmates, who may see this writing at multiple stages).[7]

When you draw on visceral experiences as well as textual evidence, it can also create a richer understanding of the subculture and an ethical responsibility to convey its multiple facets and to avoid being reductive. This can increase your understanding and involvement in the subculture and produce a new appreciation for an activity that perhaps had been an unexamined part of your life outside the classroom. In this way, the writing carries an impact that extends beyond the scope of the assignment and its evaluation against classroom standards.

One of the first steps you want to take in preparing for your autoethnograpy is to determine its structure. An autoethnography assignment will generally provide you with an overall question, a particular subculture or epiphany or a series of smaller questions related to an overall theme. You should pay close attention to what is being asked of you including what you will need to submit, the research required to complete it and what the differences are between any subsequent drafts.  At Guttman, we generally begin with an exercise that helps you to think about your path to college. This might be a brainstorm, a list of questions or an exploration of your own notes, posts, assignments or journal entries.[8]


Collecting data for your autoethnography


If you have not been provided a list of questions, you may need to develop your own. In this case, you will need to review whichever aspect of your world your professor has asked you to examine and any experiences, people and artifacts that are related.[9]

At Guttman, we focus on the general question “How Did I Get Here?” and ask you to reflect on your unique experiences, positions and perspectives in this world. You should think about who were the people that lead you to this college? What has happened with your schooling and work experiences, your family and friends, your spiritual/religious beliefs, and/or your neighborhoods that brought you to Guttman?


For your autoethnography, you will think deeply about your own understanding of how you got to Guttman—the people, places and experiences in your life that led you to New York, to Guttman, through your first year and to a possible major and career. This is called an autoethnography because the primary source of analysis is your experience and perceptions of the events in your life.  Your introduction should engage readers with your story and your purpose of writing and your conclusion should state your main findings about your path to Guttman and reflect more broadly on how your experience may indicate larger ideas/experiences/structures in our social world.

Some professors may also ask you to consider the following questions:

1.      How do your experiences reflect broader societal issues about education?

2.      How does race, socio-economic class, gender and other aspects of identity play out in your narrative?

3.      What is important about the main challenges and opportunities you experienced?

4.      What is the role of social institutions—such as family, schools, religion, etc–and your pathway to Guttman?



The structure of your autoethnography should be similar to how you might write up an ethnography. This will generally include one or more narrative stories that describe the particular aspects of your subculture or epiphany that are referred to in your assignment. You might include pictures or images that capture your experiences. As part of this assignment, you may find it useful to speak to family or friends who might also have insight into those parts of your life, examining journals, photos and pictures to collect information can also provide information.

As you think about your autoethnography, you must also understand that memory is fallible. As a rule, people remember only a very small amount of what they experience. If this were not true, we would not be able to function on a daily basis. Consider whether you have a memory of something that others dispute—maybe something that happened in childhood or an experience with a friend on which you disagree about what actually occurred.

It is important to establish that just because memories differ does not mean they are invalid. There is a fine line between remembering something to the best of our ability and willfully misremembering something. Talking to others who were involved in memories, if possible, can be helpful in fleshing out details. . Since memory is fallible, interviewing others who were present at important events, speaking to multiple people directly involved in the memories or reading journals or other first-hand accounts can be an important part of the writing. It may come as a surprise that writing about your own life can require research.[10]

Once you have your data, you want to begin to organize it. There are two general ways to organize your autoethnography—chronologically and by theme. If you are describing your path to or through something, you will likely want to write this chronologically. You should begin with the earliest event, person or activity and share a story or multiple stories through to the current time.[11]

If you are not writing your essay as building up to something or this is later draft that includes some analysis or examination of social institutions, you might want to organize your paper by theme. In this case, you might collect particular examples that share a particular pattern or connect to a theme.


Ethnographic Narratives

The forms of autoethnography also differ in how much emphasis is placed on the study of others, the researcher’s self and interaction with others, traditional analysis, and the interview context, as well as on power relationships.[12] Many assignments in a class are likely to focus more on the self but others might ask you to pull on data outside of your own experiences. These are built off of different structures of ethnographic research and the ways in which narratives are composed.[13]

Indigenous/native ethnographies, for example, develop from colonized or economically subordinated people, and are used to address and disrupt power in research, particularly a (outside) researcher’s right and authority to study (exotic) others. Once at the service of the (White, masculine, heterosexual, middle/upper-classed, Christian, cis-gendered, able-bodied) ethnographer, indigenous/native ethnographers now work to construct their own personal and cultural stories; they no longer find (forced) subjugation excusable (see Denzin, Lincoln & Smith, 2008).[14]

Narrative ethnographies refer to texts presented in the form of stories that incorporate the ethnographer’s experiences into the ethnographic descriptions and analysis of others. Here the emphasis is on the ethnographic study of others, which is accomplished partly by attending to encounters between the narrator and members of the groups being studied (Tedlock, 1991), and the narrative often intersects with analyses of patterns and processes.

Reflexive, dyadic interviews focus on the interactively produced meanings and emotional dynamics of the interview itself. Though the focus is on the participant and her or his story, the words, thoughts, and feelings of the researcher also are considered, e.g., personal motivation for doing a project, knowledge of the topics discussed, emotional responses to an interview, and ways in which the interviewer may have been changed by the process of interviewing. Even though the researcher’s experience isn’t the main focus, personal reflection adds context and layers to the story being told about participants (Ellis, 2004).

Reflexive ethnographies document ways a researcher changes as a result of doing fieldwork. Reflexive/narrative ethnographies exist on a continuum ranging from starting research from the ethnographer’s biography, to the ethnographer studying her or his life alongside cultural members’ lives, to ethnographic memoirs (Ellis, 2004, p.50) or “confessional tales” (Van Maanen, 1988) where the ethnographer’s backstage research endeavors become the focus of investigation (Ellis, 2004).

Layered accounts often focus on the author’s experience alongside data, abstract analysis, and relevant literature. This form emphasizes the procedural nature of research. Similar to grounded theory, layered accounts illustrate how “data collection and analysis proceed simultaneously” (Charmaz, 1983, p.110) and frame existing research as a “source of questions and comparisons” rather than a “measure of truth” (p.117). But unlike grounded theory, layered accounts use vignettes, reflexivity, multiple voices, and introspection (Ellis, 1991) to “invoke” readers to enter into the “emergent experience” of doing and writing research (Ronai, 1992, p.123), conceive of identity as an “emergent process” (Rambo, 2005, p.583), and consider evocative, concrete texts to be as important as abstract analyses (Ronai, 1995, 1996).

Interactive interviews provide an “in-depth and intimate understanding of people’s experiences with emotionally charged and sensitive topics” (Ellis, Kiesinger & Tillmann-Healy, 1997, p.121). Interactive interviews are collaborative endeavors between researchers and participants, research activities in which researchers and participants—one and the same—probe together about issues that transpire, in conversation, about particular topics (e.g., eating disorders). Interactive interviews usually consist of multiple interview sessions, and, unlike traditional one-on-one interviews with strangers, are situated within the context of emerging and well-established relationships among participants and interviewers (Adams, 2008). The emphasis in these research contexts is on what can be learned from interaction within the interview setting as well as on the stories that each person brings to the research encounter (Mey & Mruck, 2010).

Similar to interactive interviews, community autoethnographies use the personal experience of researchers-in-collaboration to illustrate how a community manifests particular social/cultural issues (e.g., whiteness; Toyosaki, Pensoneau-Conway, Wendt & Leathers, 2009). Community autoethnographies thus not only facilitate “community-building” research practices but also make opportunities for “cultural and social intervention” possible (p.59; see Kardorff & Schönberger, 2010).

Co-constructed narratives illustrate the meanings of relational experiences, particularly how people collaboratively cope with the ambiguities, uncertainties, and contradictions of being friends, family, and/or intimate partners. Co-constructed narratives view relationships as jointly-authored, incomplete, and historically situated affairs. Joint activity structures co-constructed research projects. Often told about or around an epiphany, each person first writes her or his experience, and then shares and reacts to the story the other wrote at the same time (see Bochner & Ellis, 1995; Toyosaki & Pensoneau, 2005; Vande berg & Trujillo, 2008).

Generally, the autoethnographies you will write for classes will be personal narratives–stories about authors who view themselves as the phenomenon and write evocative narratives specifically focused on their academic, research, and personal lives (e.g., Berry, 2007; Goodall, 2006; Poulos, 2008; Tillmann, 2009). These often are the most controversial forms of autoethnography for traditional social scientists, especially if they are not accompanied by more traditional analysis and/or connections to scholarly literature. Personal narratives propose to understand a self or some aspect of a life as it intersects with a cultural context, connect to other participants as co-researchers, and invite readers to enter the author’s world and to use what they learn there to reflect on, understand, and cope with their own lives (Ellis, 2004, p.46)

Even if it is not assigned, an autoethnography can be a good exercise before embarking on ethnographic research. It allows you to begin to think like an ethnographer with familiar data. It can also provide space for you to began to think about your perspectives on a particular research subject, as well as your biases and blindspots. In addition, the reflective purposes it serves can be invaluable in moving your own research forward.[15]


    1. Outlining the overall structure

Come up with a name that isn’t “how I got here” “my trip here” “Why I’m here” Something reflective of the paper.

    1. Writing an introduction
    2. Writing a conclusion
    3. Revision

Revise your document by incorporating any and all edits on your previous draft and make sure that you have an introduction and a conclusion. You also should make sure that the new paragraphs fit with the paper as a whole.

  1. Learning from your autoethnography
    1. Re-coding your autoethnography

You will also be expected to return to and revise your first autoethnography to ensure that it fits your additions and to add more information covering your first year. This may also include information from reflections or work in any of your other classes. You will also do the ethnographic coding that you have learned since your previous autoethnography and describe the themes and patterns that emerged.

Read through the entire paper and pull out the theoretical notes. What are the patterns in your life? The people, places, attitudes and/or opinions that have had an effect on your life? Select at least three theoretical notes and describe their importance to you.

Chapter Summary

  • Autoethnography is a reflective practice that allows the researcher to use their own experience in understanding social phenomena
  • The researcher may need to consult sources outside of themselves
  • A researcher can do an autoethnography on their own experiences but can also ask research subjects to do them on themselves


Key Terms

  • Autoethnography
  • Value-centered
  • Epiphanies



  1. How has autoethnography been used over time?
  2. If you had to develop three themes that illustrated your life so far, what would they be and what epiphanies led to them or are a result of them?
  3. How should autoethnographies be organized?




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[1] In order to make this book  as relevant to our students as possible, the author added this paragraph

[2] Ellis, Carolyn; Adams, Tony E. & Bochner, Arthur P. (2010). Autoethnography: An Overview [40 paragraphs]. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 12(1), Art. 10,

[3] Ellis, Carolyn; Adams, Tony E. & Bochner, Arthur P. (2010). Autoethnography: An Overview [40 paragraphs]. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 12(1), Art. 10,

[4] The Autoethnography Project by Melissa Tombro is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

[5] In order to make this book  as relevant to our students as possible, the author added this paragraph

[6] In order to make this book  as relevant to our students as possible, the author added this paragraph

[7]  The Autoethnography Project by Melissa Tombro is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted

[8] In order to make this book  as relevant to our students as possible, the author added this paragraph

[9] In order to make this book  as relevant to our students as possible, the author added this paragraph

[10]  The Autoethnography Project by Melissa Tombro is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted

[11] In order to make this book  as relevant to our students as possible, the author added this paragraph

[12]  The Autoethnography Project by Melissa Tombro is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted

[13] In order to make this book  as relevant to our students as possible, the author added this paragraph

[14] Ellis, Carolyn; Adams, Tony E. & Bochner, Arthur P. (2010). Autoethnography: An Overview [40 paragraphs]. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 12(1), Art. 10,

[15] In order to make this book  as relevant to our students as possible, the author added this paragraph