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Auto-Ethnography: Paradigms, Problems, and Prospects

Author(s): David M. Hayano

Source: Human Organization, Vol. 38, No. 1 (Spring 1979), pp. 99-104
Published by: Society for Applied Anthropology
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/44125560
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1970 Alcoholism: A High-priority Health Problem: A Report While auto-ethnography is not a specific research tech-
of the Indian Health Service Task Force on Alcoholism II.
nique, method, or theory, it colors all three as they are em-
Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.
ployed in fieldwork. In many ways, the problems of auto-
1973 Alcoholism: A High-priority Health Problem. Report of
the Indian Health Service Task Force on Alcoholism. Section ethnography are the problems of ethnography compound-
III. DHEW Publication No. (HSM) 73-12002. Washington, ed by the researcher's involvement and intimacy with his
D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office. subjects. In either case, critical issues of observation,
1976a The Forward Plan for FY 1978-1982, Alcohol, Drug epistemology, and 4 'objective' ' scientific research pro-
Abuse and Mental Health Administration, with Appendix cedures are raised.
(pp. 85-94). Entitled Decision Paper on the Proposal to
Transfer American Indian Projects Funded by the National Fieldwork in a non-Western society has long been con-
Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism to the Indian sidered to be of paramount importance for future scholars
Health Service. Washington, D.C.: Alcohol, Drug Abuse andand
teachers in both British and American schools of an-
Mental Health Administration, 2nd printing, rev. ed.,thropology.
Oc- Such experience was thought of as a profes-
tober. Mimeographed.
sional rite of passage. But there is recent evidence of a turn
1976b Forward Plan FY 1978-1982, Indian Health Service,
with Appendix B, Joint NIAAA-IHS Letter to Indian toward auto-ethnography among both new and veteran re-
Alcoholism Projects, from Emery A. Johnson and Ernest P.searchers. There are several major reasons for this develop-
Noble, May 10. Washington, D.C.: Public Health Service, ment.

Health Services Administration, October. Mimeographed. First, it is obvious that fieldwork can no longer be con-
1976c An Overview of Seven NI AAA Alcoholism Treatment
ducted under the wing of friendly colonial authorities. The
Programs for Fiscal Year 1976. Program Analysis and
Evaluation Branch, NIAAA. Mimeographed. disappearance or incorporation of former tribal peoples in-
1977a Summary of Meeting of Consultants from National In- to peasant and urban social systems has made it almost im-
dian Organizations with Indian Health Service Personnel, possible to study small, isolated tribal groups as if they ex-
IHS Headquarters, Rockville, MD, June 15-16, 1977; with isted apart from other peoples or from world economic and
Appendix, Draft Alcoholism Transfer Plan, June 15, 1977, by
political forces.
Donald A. Swetter, IHS Alcoholism Programs.
1977b Proposed Alcoholism Transfer Plan - NI AAA/ IHS. Second, minority and foreign anthropologists are being
Washington, D.C.: Public Health Service, Health Services trained in greater numbers than ever before, and many of
Administration, July 21. Mimeographed. them have clear priorities for doing ethnography in their
1977c Progress Report. The Indian Health Care Improvement home territories (Fahim 1977). Within anthropology and
Act - P.L. 94-437, presented at the Annual Meeting of the
sociology there has long been a propensity for minority
National Congress of American Indians, Dallas, Texas,
September 15. scholars to study their own group, either by choice or social
Westermeyer, J. restriction (Bracey et al. 1973). The recent upsurge in pop-
1976 Clinical Guidelines for the Cross-Cultural Treatment of ularity of Third World courses and Ethnic Studies depart-
Chemical Dependency. American Journal of Drug and ments has also generated the need for minority social scien-
Alcohol Abuse 3(2):315-22.
tists to examine first their own peoples and communities.
Third, specializations such as urban anthropology, ap-
plied or action anthropology, and various other inter-
disciplinary studies have led many graduate students to do
A uto-Ethnography : at least some predoctoral fieldwork in their own backyards,
Paradigms, Problems , and Prospects particularly since shrinking research funds and increased
competition have reduced much of the support for anthro-
by David M. Hayano pological fieldwork abroad.
As evidence for this trend toward auto-ethnography,
David M. Hayano is Associate Professor of Anthropology at
most edited readers in cultural anthropology today include
California State University, Northridge. The author would like
to thank Karen Ito Chan for her comments on an earlier version at least one article on anthropological fieldwork in some
of this paper. segment of American society (Jacobs 1970; Feldman and
Thielbar 1972; Jorgensen and Truzzi 1974; Spradley and
This paper is concerned with the following: (1) how an- Rynkiewich 1975; Nash and Spradley 1976; Arenš and
thropologists conduct and write ethnographies of their Montague 1976; Spradley and McCurdy 1977). Also, the
"own people"; (2) the problems of methodology and recent spate of "how to do ethnography" books includes
theory associated with this approach; and (3) whether an- many examples and research exercises for the student in
thropology can profit from these exercises. I refer to this everyday, familiar settings (Spradley and McCurdy 1972;
entire scope of issues as auto-ethnography.1 This definition Crane and Angrosino 1974; Hunter and Foley 1976).
of auto-ethnography encompasses a wide range of studies, I first heard the term auto-ethnography used in Sir Ray-
as it includes the works of other social scientists who have mond Firth's structuralism seminar in 1966 at the London
done intensive participant-observation research in natural School of Economics. In his lecture he had made passing
field settings. references to Jomo Kenyatta's study (1938) of his native

VOL. 3 8, NO. 1 SPRING 1979 99

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Kikuyu people. As the story was told, when Kenyatta first The second major type of auto-ethnography is that writ-
presented his field material in Malinowski' s seminar, he ten by researchers who have acquired an intimate famil-
touched off a heated shouting match with another Kikuyu iarity with certain subcultural, recreational, or occupa-
speaker. That speaker was a white African, L. S. B. tional groups. Several sociologists who have done intensive
Leakey. It is further reported that "since the argument participant-observation research fall into this category.
lapsed into Kikuyu, the exact nature of the discrepancies Scott's (1968) knowledge of race track personnel and bet-
between Leakey and Kenyatta were never clarified" (Wax tors came from his family's connections in the business.
1976:332). Their argument pointedly raised the question of Polsky' s (1969) favorite recreation was pool shooting, and
judging the validity of anthropological data by assessing the as a skilled insider, he was occasionally a hustler or a finan-
characteristics, interests, and origin of the person who did cial backer of other pool hustlers. Some auto-ethno-
the field work. graphers worked at various jobs before or even during their
My own teaching and my fieldwork in New Guinea and careers as professional social scientists, and later analyzed
with subcultures in the United States have continued totheir experiences. Studies such as Davis (1959) on Chicago
raise questions for me about the nature of data collection
cab drivers, Becker (1963:79-1 14) on jazz musicians, Pilcher
and observer interpretation. Perhaps now it may be possi-
(1972) on the Portland longshoremen, and Spradley and
ble to examine the auto-ethnographic work which has been
Mann (1975) on cocktail waitresses fit this category of
scholars who have acquired multiple group membership
completed and to isolate its central characteristics, foibles,
and merits. Do the data collected and analyzed by an in-derived from their own personal interests and backgrounds.
digenous insider of a particular group differ significantly
A subcategory of this second type of auto-ethnography
occurs when individuals become formally and informally
from those of an outsider? If so, how? This paper is offered
socialized, after indoctrination, into a specific group or
as a preliminary attempt to sort out some of the most im-
portant features and consequences of studying one's own
role-type with some specialized knowledge or way of life.
people. The attainment of insider membership may be a long-term
permanent change, as in the case of Agehananda Bharati
Auto-Ethnography: Styles and Types. It is no easy (born Leopold Fischer) who went to India and became a
task to define precisely how an anthropologist identifies Hindu monk as well as an Indian scholar and anthro-
himself/ herself and the groups to which he/she belongs. pologist (1970). It may also be a case of one who has joined
One cannot judge solely on the basis of physical appearance and studied a small organization or society after under-
or residence to determine whether one is or is not doing going special entrance rituals (e.g., Sullivan et al. 1958).
auto-ethnography. Hsu (1948:ix), for example, "looked Excluded as examples of auto-ethnography are the writ-
like" his subjects in a small rural town in Hunnan, China, ings of many anthropologists who have conducted partici-
but was always treated as an outsider. Similarly, Srinivas pant- observation research among a distinctly different
(1966), who is a Brahmin Indian, was different in caste group than their own. For example, no matter how exhaus-
membership from many of the people of the Indian villages tive Malinowski's knowledge of Trobriand island society
he studied. In the Pacific Islands, a native anthropologist was, he could never be considered a native by either his or
visiting other islands is often classified as a strangertheir standards. This sense of "living in" a group is com-
(Crocombe 1976). The criteria for auto-ethnography, then,pletely different from the native, internal meaning of mem-
must include some prior knowledge of the people, their bership (Martin 1974). Cases of "going native," such as the
culture and language, as well as the ability to be accepted tocelebrated example of Frank Cushing and the Zuñi, are also
some degree, or to "pass" as a native member. This in- not applicable, for although he adopted their clothing and
sider/outsider (or auto-ethnography /ethnography) dimen- language, he, apparently, never ceased to be an anthropolo-
sion is best seen as a continuum rather than a rigid gist. The degree to which his story has been distorted and
dichotomy (Lewis 1973:599). romanticized seems to be a part of anthropology's fable
The most common type of auto-ethnography is that writ- (Gronewald 1972).
ten by people whose "master status" (Hughes 1945) is ob- Thus, auto-ethnographies can be and are written by
vious and important to their self-identity. This list includes scholars with many diverse interests and backgrounds.
ethnographers who have studied their own cultural, social, There is no one necessary characteristic, such as birthplace
ethnic, racial, religious, residential, or sex membership or appearance, which defines both types.2 The shared sim-
group, or a combination of one or more of these categories. ilarities among auto-ethnographies are that, in each case,
An example is Roy's (1975) study of Bengali women; the the researchers possess the qualities of often permanent
author is both a Bengali and a woman. Other selected self-identification with a group and full internal member-
works of this type include Yang (1945), Busia (1951), ship, as recognized both by themselves and the people of
Uchendu (1965), Srinivas (1966), Hostetler (1968), Ortiz whom they are a part.
(1969), Owusu (1970), Cavan (1972), and others cited
throughout this paper. A Common Paradigm? If the term paradigm is used in


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Kuhn' s (1970) most general sense, as the prevailing ac- search for entirely new theories, concepts, and methods
cepted definition of problems and a shared formula by derived from other possible epistemologies; (2) emic or sub-
which data are explained, then it can be said that the final jectively oriented data analysis, incorporating techniques
products of auto-ethnography have not produced or fol- and theories adapted from other disciplines; and (3) ap-
lowed one common paradigm or one distinctive theoretical plied, action, or radical anthropology emphasizing the
framework. Among writers, there is a diversity of training practical uses of anthropology in support of one's own peo-
and, consequently, many styles of reporting and analyzing ple and, therefore, of oneself.
The interests of many auto-ethnographers fit the models Problems of Method and Analysis. Some auto-eth-
of ethnoscience, cognitive anthropology, ethnometh- nographers give little or no indication in their published
odology, symbolic interactionism, or phenomenology. If writings that there are any special differences, problems, or
the native-as-ethnographer has the ability to intuit cultural- advantages to studying a group of people as a native insider
ly significant questions and answers, then clearly these (e.g., Busia 1951; Hostetler 1968; Ortiz 1969). They simply
models are appropriate. But these subjectively oriented go about ethnography as usual in their role as "objective"
"creative sociologies" (Morris 1977) and traditional reporters and analyze their data according to their own
ethnographic concerns have not always been compatible. special interests and theoretical inclinations.
Why have some auto-ethnographers not fully exploited For auto-ethnographers, intensive participant observa-
their native vantage points? Several reasons for this omis- tion is often the most important field method, perhaps to
sion are suggested by the researchers themselves. Yang the neglect of other research tools such as questionnaires,
(1972:72) prefers to be called a scientist rather than a structured interviews, psychological tests, field ex-
"sentimentalist." Srinivas (1966:155) feels that it is of ut-
periments, or formal ethnoscientific procedures.
most importance for the field worker to be objective, to In undertaking fieldwork, the choice of a field location is
hold his emotions and feelings in abeyance. Thus, for someoften determined by the researcher's identity and group
auto-ethnographers, to follow the canons of objective re- membership. Some anthropologists of foreign or ethnic
search procedures, detachment and uninvolvement is more origin state that, in their experiences in American universi-
useful than to be guided by intense personal familiarity. ties, they are expected to study their own peoples rather
The written style of many recent auto-ethnographies isthan do fieldwork elsewhere. Jones comments that:
holistic and descriptive rather than problem-oriented. To
borrow Blumer 's (1956) phrase, auto-ethnographers have the role that the student should not work in his culture
seems to be reversed when it comes to the foreign student,
usually attempted to describe the "full picture" and
the "native" who is studying for a Ph.D. in the United
breadth of their people. The intimacy of their portrayals
States. It is an undeniable fact that most African students
has resulted in a type of descriptive ethnography which in American universities are Africanists who have con-
was common in anthropology several decades ago, and
ducted field work in their own society and are specialists
most recent auto-ethnographies fall into conventional an- in their own people. The philosophy concerning the field
thropological paradigms, most notably holistic-descriptive training of foreign students, therefore, is opposite to that
ethnography, structural-functionalism, symbolic anthro- which pertains to training American students (1970:252).
pology, or a branch of psychological anthropology.
By accepting these conventional paradigms, the quality One African student, Chilungu (1976:458), was even told
of theory in auto-ethnography, as well as ethnography, has by his advisors that he should not even attempt to be an an-
been questioned by a number of minority anthropologists thropologist because anthropology was for outsiders!
and sociologists (Willis 1969; Jones 1970; Lewis 1973; But once fieldwork is begun, the auto-ethnographer has
Ladner 1973). several obvious practical advantages; Yang (1972:72) and
There are, however, a number of major stumbling blocks Owusu (1970:8) single out the prior knowledge of the native
to paradigmatic change in any science, and these relate language, a major obstacle for many outside ethno-
directly to the social organization and politics of academic graphers. Others point to the feelings of empathy and emo-
scholarship and information dissemination. Hsu's (1973) tions which insiders share from knowing their subjects on a
indictment that native ethnographers are usually cited in deep, subtle level. These are emotions which outsiders can-
scholarly journals because of their data reporting, rather not feel in the same way, or for the same things (Uchendu
than their theory, is a case in point. Several studies in the 1965:9; Yang 1972:72; Roy 1975:xvi; Hau'ofa 1975).
sociology of knowledge and the communication of scien- Subjectivism and personal involvement, then, need not
tific information support Hsu's charge (Friedrichs 1970; necessarily be methodological "problems," but can be
Crane 1972). assets to deepen ethnographic understanding.
Despite these difficulties, three directions that some In some field locations, it is simply easier, socially and
auto-ethnographers are either striving for or have marked politically, to do fieldwork among a group in which one is
as future possible paradigm shifts are as follows: (1) the or was a member. Lutfiyya (1966), with only three months'

VOL. 3 8, NO. 1 SPRING 1979 101

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formal fieldwork,was able to write an ethnography of a tiveness of the insider's perspective in anthropology is
Jordanian village where he grew up and lived for 20 years. noticeable. Uchendu (1965:9) remarks that:
Even then, there were questions about his identity and role;
The "native" point of view presented by a sympathetic-
many villagers thought he was a spy. Pilcher's (1972) study
foreign ethnologist who "knows" his native is not the
of Portland longshoremen clearly points out that an out-
view presented by the native. Both views are legitimate,
sider would have an extremely difficult time asking ques-
but the native's point of view is yet to enrich our
tions and communicating with members of this working- discipline.
class occupational group. His own involvement with long-
shoremen, through his family and work, facilitated his ac- An extension of this issue, which auto-ethnographers have
ceptance into the group in his new role as anthropologist. not thoroughly examined, is that cultural "realities" and
Many insiders-turned-anthropologists find that their native interpretations of events among individuals in the same
communities adopt new roles to fit them when they return group are often highly variable, changing, or contradic-
home for fieldwork. Selosoemardjan (1962:xxv), for exam- tory. Thus, an insider's position is not necessarily an un-
ple, was labeled a 4 'civil servant" by Indonesian villagers challengeable "true" picture; it represents one possible
who knew him before his training at Cornell. For all auto- perspective.
ethnographers, familiarity tends to mitigate at least two The pitfalls of subjectivity and involvement do not go
common field problems: the potentially devastating effects without comment. Auto-ethnographers themselves fre-
of environmental change and culture shock. quently mention observations which can easily be over-
looked, including the many taken-for-granted assumptions
Many auto-ethnographers comment on the need to make
about social behavior and the blindness to common, every-
a clear role distinction between scientist-ethnographer and
day activities; these are the hazards of intimate familiarity
native group member in order to maintain a sense of emo-
tional and social detachment and value neutrality (Punyo- (Uchendu 1965:9-10; Yang 1972:70; Pilcher 1972:5; Lewis
1973:587). Too much information about a people is also a
dyana 1969:77; Hsu 1970:xiii; Cutileiro 1971 :vii-viii). On
his fieldwork in a Portugese village, Cutileiro remarks: "In problem. Auto-ethnographers, as well as outside
order to be able to survive and describe the life of some of ethnographers, sometimes face troublesome decisions
which must be made about publishing data that is political-
my fellow-countrymen I had, as it were, to impersonate an
ly sensitive or that describes illegal, confidential, or ritual
Oxford anthropologist" (1971 :vii. Emphasis mine).
practices (Becker 1964; Cassell 1977).
To further the goals of role detachment and uninvolve- While the intimate familiarity of auto-ethnography has
ment, some auto-ethnographers attempt to be a "marginal its problems, little has been said of the comparable, op-
native" (Freilich 1970), even in their natal communities. posite stance of "overobjectivity," that is, attempting to
But most auto-ethnographers agree that this self-imposed describe a people from a totally detached stranger perspec-
social and psychological distance in fieldwork can only be tive or as a Martian (Davis 1973). An example of this is
so effective. Srinivas (1966:154) feels that, regardless of Miner's (1956) well-known description of Nacirema magical
one's role, no information can be collected by entirely "ob-
practices and body taboos. It is amusing, since most readers
jective" means. The choice of a problem, method, and know who he is referring to, yet the final product does not
theory is always affected by one's position in a particular seem to be totally "real." But how many other classic
society and by personal and situational factors such as sex, ethnographies may read in the same ludicrous manner by
age, degree of rapport, the location of fieldwork, and the literate, former informants? There is evidence that even
restraints of the sponsoring institution (also see Sjoberg seasoned outside ethnographers, such as Malinowski and
and Nett 1968:96-128). Mead, have misunderstood, misinterpreted, or inaccurately
The most fundamental dilemma raised by most auto- described important features of native life and culture
ethnographers concerns research bias and the objec- (Barnes 1963:127; Crocombe 1976).
tive/subjective polarity in collecting, interpreting, and Some of the methodological problems of auto-ethno-
reporting information (Uchendu 1965; Srinivas 1966:155; graphy are the identical problems of outsider ethnography.
Milner and Milner 1972:21; Yang 1972:72; Spradley and Auto-ethnographers, however, must seriously evaluate
Mann 1975:12). Opinion diverges as to how much the in- their special advantages or disadvantages, whatever these
sider's viewpoint should be presented and how accurate it might be. With these issues unresolved, it is only with cau-
actually is. Chilungu (1976) resents the accusation that in- tion that the potential uses of auto-ethnography within
siders are automatically biased in their interpretation of cultural anthropology can be discussed.
data in comparison to outside ethnographers. Jones
(1970:258) is a stronger advocate of subjectivity and in- Prospects and Possibilities. To build a strong
volvement, and takes the position that the ethnographer substantive and theoretical base in ethnography, despite th
should present data on behalf of and beneficial to his own drawbacks and uncertainties of auto-ethnography
membership group. In either case, the lack and distinc- enumerated above, it is suggested that the perspective of


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ethnographie reflexivity can be an important contribution. Blumer, Herbert
Anthropologists who have unique cultural or subcultural 1956 Sociological Analysis and the 'Variable.' American
Sociological Review 21:683-90.
experiences and specialized knowledge can share these
Bracey, John, August Meier, and Eliot Rudwick
views with others, and not matter-of-factly submerge them
1973 The Black Sociologists: The First Half Century. In The
under conventional anthropological paradigms. Years of Death of White Sociology, Joyce A. Ladner, ed. New York:
effort may be saved by native ethnographers who have Random House.

already acquired internal group membership. The resultant Busia, K. A.

195 1 The Position of the Chief in the Modern Political System
multidimensional view of reality and the "perspectivist
of Ashanti. London: Oxford University Press.
knowledge' ' gained (Lewis 1973:586) surely would enlarge
Cassell, Joan
anthropology's conceptual and epistemological founda-
1977 The Relationship of Observer to Observed in Peer Group
Research. Human Organization 36:412-16.
In short, the foremost prospects and possibilities of auto- Cavan, Sheri
ethnography in anthropology at this time lie in the follow- 1972 Hippies of the Haight. St. Louis, Missouri: New Critics
ing: (1) the substantive and heuristic values of its diverse
Chilungu, Simeon W.
concepts and theories; (2) the ethical and moral issues it
1976 Issues in the Ethics of Research Method: An Interpreta-
perpetually confronts with respect to the use of human sub- tion of the Anglo-American Perspective. Current Anthro-
jects as sources of data; (3) the voices from within- the in- pology 17:457-81.
ternal political affirmation of cultural diversity and Crane, Diana
1972 Invisible Colleges. Diffusion of Knowledge in Scientific
autonomy for sometimes neglected populations and
Communities. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
peoples; and (4) its potential advisory capabilities in pro-
Crane, Julia G., and Michael V. Angrosino
grams of change or development. 1974 Field Projects in Anthropology: A Student Handbook.
The difficulty of weighing the prospects of auto- Morristown, New Jersey: General Learning Press.
ethnography is that it does not represent a clear-cut direc- Crocombe, Ronald
1976 Anthropology, Anthropologists, and Pacific Islanders.
tion in anthropology; perhaps it never will. Presently, it is a
Oceania XLVIL66-73.
mixture of diverse researchers investigating different prob- Cutileiro, Jose
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1 I do not mean the term in Heider 's (1975:3)
tives ofsense of Anthropologist.
an Egyptian "autoch- Human Organization
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