Monday, April 14, 2008

Personal Response to The Ethnographic I by Carol Ellis

I was interested in reading The Ethnographic I by Carolyn Ellis for several reasons. First, I am beginning some research, which may turn into my dissertation about Americans teaching in international schools. I've been an international teacher for the past ten years, so I am a member of the group I am researching, though at this time, not as a participate. However, I am using my friends and colleagues as part of my research. This is potentially both advantageous and problematic. First, I have already built relationships with the participants, yet since these relationships are as a friend or colleague, it may be difficult to transition to researcher. I am partially guided by the old adage, “Write what you know” in doing this research. But, I struggle with the objective/subjective part of the research. As an English teacher and bibliophile I have been immersed in narrative for most of my life. When I took the Myers-Brigg Personality Indicator, I had strong tendencies to ENFP – Extraversion, iNtuition, Feeling, and Perceiving. This personality type seems tailor-made for ethnography, “Words, ideas and possibilities spew effortlessly from them. Words are their best friends. . . They use metaphors, stories, images and analogies to make their point” (Myers-Briggs Personality Type, 1997-2006).

From the beginning, it is clear this will be a different sort of methodology book. The cast of characters sets it up to be a play or drama of some sort. It is interesting to note that some characters are based on real people and others on composites. This brings up the question of truth in storytelling, yet the author makes her intentions transparent in the Preface. Ellis says, “In this work, I intentionally combine fictional and ethnographic scenes . . . Combining literary and ethnographic techniques allows me to create a story to engage readers in methodological concerns in the same way a novel engages readers in its plot.” (xx) Which, in beginning the book, I would agree with. The introductory dialogue was certainly a lot more interesting than the typical preface. So, the major question throughout my reading will be, can a piece of research be both ethnography and a novel? If so, what are some of the advantages and disadvantages in writing in this genre as a researcher?

I had to check the character of Jack. He is the model of science in which Ellis has to defend herself, though she say that she isn't defending herself. He is the voice in my head that says the same things – that challenges the methodology.

I am very interested in seeing the Ellis's insecurities as a professor. As a new graduate student, I have the impression that everyone is a little bit smarter and better equipped than I, and to think that a professor would be so concerned about how things are going and afraid of messing up is revealing.

On page 110, the class brought up an interesting point, “Do you have to be emotional to do autoethnography?” Ellis's response is that the subject matter and process is inherently emotional. Plus, emotionality helps the researcher connect with the participants. However, being too emotional clouds the researcher and may inhibit the researcher's ability to write. Then a question, which I have, is asked, “Does it have to center on pain?” (pg. 110) Ellis feels that pain makes the most evocative writing, which, in her mind, should be a goal of an autoethnographer. However, Art Bochner says, “sometimes the impetus for writing autoethnography is something other than pain. Sometimes it comes from the desire to remember and honor the past. We write to find the truths of our experiences, some painful, some not.” (pg. 111)

One of the issues we've struggled in class is the truth in storytelling. It isn't surprising that Ellis addresses this issue through the voice of Jack. I can relate to Jack, because he asks the questions I would ask in this class, he asks, “How would I make sure that what I said was truthful?” Ellis says, “The 'truth' is that we can never fully capture experience. What we tell is always a story about the past. Gregory Bateson says stories are true in the present though not in the past . . . If you viewed your project as closer to art than science, then your goal would be not so much to portray the facts of what happened to you accurately but instead to convey the meanings you attached to the experience.” (pg. 116) Like Jack, I wonder if this sort of research is respected in education. I feel a connection to the method, but fear not being taken seriously.

Another issue, related to truth is the validity of the research. Being a new grad student, I just went through the Human Subjects Protection Tutorial. In these modules, there were strong warnings and threats about accurately reporting results. Ellis says,
“[The students] ask how we know when our social inquiries are faithful enough to some human construction that we and those we study feel safe to act on what we find. In seeking to redefine validity, these authors turn to criteria for judging the processes and outcomes of research projects rather than the methods by which outcomes are produced. A standard of fairness judges whether all stakeholder views are reflected in the text. Ontological and educative authenticity assesses whether these is a raised awareness in the research participants. Catalytic authenticity and tactical authenticity evaluate actions by participants and researchers to prompt social and political action if that is desired. In autoethnographic work, I look at valisity in terms of what happens to readers as well as to research participants and researchers. To me, validity means that our work seeks verisimilitude; it evokes in readers a feeling that the experiences described is lifelike, believable, and possible.” (pg. 123-124)

This type of research seems to have a lot of ambiguity. Ellis addresses the use of composite characters, which is not reporting on what “actually happened” but “to protect the privacy or a research participant ... you might use composites or change some identifying information. Or you might collapse events to write a more engaging story, which might be more truthful in a narrative sense though not in a historical one.” (pg.125) Again, there is the part of me, trained in scientific method, that criticizes this seemingly lackadaisical attitude about reporting the truth and the responsibility of a researcher.

The story that Ellis shares about taking care of her mother really touches a cord in me. I'm in that stage of life where my parents are also needing more help. However, the issue that really interests me is about getting permission of family members to write about them. We began to explore this issue in class, and really didn't come up with a solid answer. Ellis shares her fear, at first, about embarrassing her mother about the physical details, yet when she finally shared the story, her mother was not upset and it seems to draw them closer. Ellis's conclusion is similar to our class's conclusion, it depends, “Each decision requires assessment of the local circumstances and a desire to avoid doing harm. . . I think you should make decisions in research the same way you make them in your personal life, only with more consideration of the impact on others since usually the research is for your own gain.” (pg. 153)


“Myers-Briggs Personality Type, Your Best Fit Type, and an introduction
to the 16 types.” (1997 - 2006 ). Personality Pathways. Ross Reinhold & Reinhold Development.

Ellis, C. (2004). The Ethnographic I: A methodological novel about autoethnography. Walnut
Creek: AltaMira Press.