Autoethnography as a research method

In March 2020 most of the world went into lockdown as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Challenging times lay ahead for everyone, including the research community.

hiking in mountains
How can we use our personal experiences doing research? In CALENDARS we turned to autoethnography when the world went into lock- down in March
Sissel Aasheim

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With no way to collaborate with research participants to garner seasonal insights, we asked ourselves how can we do ethnographic research under lock-down? A decision was made to reflect on our own experiences and observations by regularly writing a seasonal diary. And so our journey of engagement with autoethnography began; opposite seasonal insights experienced at opposite ends of the world.

What is autoethnography and how can it add value to research into seasonal representations? As a research method, autoethnography emphasises personal experience and places reflection in the context of the cultural framework within which the research is conducted (Ellis, Adams, & Bochner, 2011; Wall, 2008). Contrary to traditional methodological approaches and perceptions, autoethnography encourages the researcher to incorporate her or his own positionality and subjective experience (Adams, Jones, & Ellis, 2015; Stahlke Wall, 2018). The methodological aim is no longer to present research findings detached from personal experiences but to use these experiences to get to the culture being researched (Pelias, 2003), thus, the method is part auto or self and part ethno or culture (Ellis 2004). 

Having become cut off from most of our daily routines like going to the office, doing sports, taking kids to school or kindergarten and even socializing with friends and family, the team experienced an intensified notion of seasonal representations by turning to autoethnography. Our senses and attention sharpened and made us aware of how remarkable and noteworthy the seasonal changes taking place around us as part of the rhythms of our lives. This was emphasised due to the fact that the majority of cultural seasonal markers (e.g., Easter celebration, festivals, school holidays) passed by almost without noticing. The days became void of social and cultural experiences and so what at times felt like a reliving of the same day over and over again became a unique opportunity for acute environmental observation and personal reflection based on the cultural context in which the CALENDARS researchers are based. 

Three decades ago, when autoethnography was in its infancy, it was already clear to Ellis (1991) that any research questions asked as a result of personal experience would lead to culturally relevant answers.  Autoethnography makes it possible for our own experience to guide the research we conduct. For that, trust in our personal observations and experiences and their value and our ability to convey these is fundamental. The value of autoethnography holds true for both sociological inquiry as well as for ecological and seasonal inquiry: our experience as members of the human society with the seasonal influence on our social as well as physical environment.  

The contemporary western and scientific view is that seasons are divided into distinct periods throughout the year: spring, summer, autumn, winter. Fixed dates have been set to mark the beginnings and ends of these periods, yet they fail to do justice to the nuanced and micro-level observations and experiences ‘on the ground’. Using autoethnography as part of a suit of ethnographic ‘tools’ enables a more contextualised and meaningful way of understanding how people live by and symbolise seasons, also what they value about seasons and how these experiences relate to the wider cultural setting in which the seasons follow their rhythms. This is because autoethnography comes from a place of experience (i.e., the place-based researcher experiences the same seasonal phenomena), even though the interpretation and the cultural framing of the experience may be different. 

Hence, the intention of reflecting on our own seasonal experiences and expanding our ethnographic research approach to include autoethnography comes from our personal experience of seasons oftentimes being out of sync with wider society’s seasonal representations (spring, summer, autumn, and winter). Through our own experience in ‘being out there’, whether it is going for a stroll in the forest, catching waves or just feeling the elements, there is, at times, a mismatch between what the calendar says and our own experience on the ground as much as there is a scale discrepancy. On a personal scale, the seasonal experience is nuanced and intimate: we see and hear seasonal markers, yet these are not necessarily documented by others and often they are also not represented as part of cultural and/or scientific seasonal experience.  



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Ellis, C. (1991). Sociological Introspection and Emotional Experience. Symbolic Interaction, 14(1), 23-50. doi:10.1525/si.1991.14.1.23 
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Ellis, C., & Bochner, A. P. (1996). Composing ethnography: Alternative forms of qualitative writing (Vol. 1): Rowman Altamira. 
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Stahlke Wall, S. (2018). Reflection/Commentary on a Past Article: “Easier Said Than Done: Writing an   Autoethnography”:  International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 17(1), doi:10.1177/1609406918788249 
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