Where Biography Meets Ethnography: The Psychoanalytic Foundations of Autoethnography

Wednesday, 18 July 2018: 08:30
Oral Presentation
Michael BARR, Newcastle University, United Kingdom
Autoethnography combines biographical narrative with ethnographic methods. It operates at the intersection of the personal and the cultural, where the author thinks and observes as an ethnographer but writes as a storyteller (Denzin, 2014). In recent years autoethnography has become an established, if at times contested, method across the social sciences. Yet despite its popularity, autoethnography remains undertheorized. As a method, it is indebted to a social constructivist project that rejects binary oppositions between the researcher and the researched, objectivity and subjectivity, process and product, self and others, and the personal and the political (Ellingson and Ellis, 2008). Yet beyond these broad claims, many proponents resist articulating a firmer basis for the ontological, epistemic and reflexive status of autoethnographic writing. In this paper I argue that a reluctance to underpin autoethnography with a more robust theoretical justification ends up harming the attempt to combine biography and ethnography. The paper draws on empirical data from a course on autoethnography at a British university where MA level students were asked to consider their own autobiographies as political texts and to systematically analyse and relate their personal experience to wider political, cultural and social events. I combine this data with variants of psychoanalytic theory (Ruti, 2009) and insights from the literature on philosophy as a way of life (Hadot, 1995) to critique autoethnography’s epistemic inadequacy of strong reflexivity. The aim of the paper is both facilitate a dialogue between ethnographers and biographical researchers and to bolster the theoretical underpinnings of autoethnography.