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Reviewed by:
  • Autoethnography as Method
  • Carolyn Ellis (bio)
Chang, Heewon. Autoethnography as Method. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast, 2008. 229 pp. ISBN 968-1-59874-123-0, $29.95.

Heewon Chang has written a useful book on autoethnography for novice and experienced researchers alike who wish to include themselves in their traditional ethnographic studies. In this sense, what she advocates is akin to the “analytical autoethnography” advocated by Anderson (2006), which privileges theoretical understanding of broader social phenomena over the concrete understanding and theorizing that can be evoked from personal storytelling.

The first part of this book is an introductory overview of culture, self, and others, and their relationship to autoethnography. Chang emphasizes cultural understanding as a major task of autoethnography, a consistent theme throughout the book. She notes the increasing interest in self narratives in contemporary society, and briefly delineates the scope of self narratives from autoethnographies to memoirs to personal essays, journals, and letters. Chang discusses life histories, native ethnographies, confessional tales, and memoirs as genres of self writing in social science. Then she turns her focus to auto-ethnography as a particular form of self narrative that has been gaining interest in the social sciences and humanities for some time. [End Page 360]

According to Chang, autoethnography “transcends mere narration of self to engage in cultural analysis and interpretation” (43), and it is this quality that separates autoethnography from other genres. After grappling briefly with the objective/subjective split in autoethnography that casts realist ethnographers on one side and interpretivists on the other, she reemphasizes that for her, autoethnography “combines cultural analysis and interpretation with narrative details,” it “follows the anthropological and social scientific inquiry approach rather than descriptive or performative storytelling” (46), and it is ethnographic in its intent and method. Thus while using personal accounts, autoethnographers follow ethnographic research processes of data collection, analysis, interpretation, and the writing of reports in their goal of gaining a cultural understanding of self in interaction with others.

Though Chang acknowledges other approaches to autoethnography and is sympathetic to the argument that personal narratives may be therapeutic and evocative for self and others as well as further understanding on a personal and societal level, she argues that without “profound cultural analysis and interpretation,” this kind of writing “remains at the level of descriptive autobiography or memoir” (51). Chang outlines the benefits of autoethnography in terms of self transformation cross-cultural coalition building, and then warns of the pitfalls that can lead autoethnography to having little social impact, such as excessive focus on self, overemphasis on narration, exclusive reliance on personal memory, negligence of ethical standards, and inappropriate use of the label autoethnography.

Chang offers a useful discussion of the role of self in a research study—from focusing solely on self, to studying some aspect of self alongside that same aspect of others, to using personal experiences solely to decide on a topic—and briefly discusses the ethical issues in autoethnographic studies. Chang leads the reader through the steps of doing an autoethnographic project, from initiating a study to collecting data on the past from personal memory and from others, through systematic self observation and the field journal to understand the present, and from external sources such as textual and nontextual artifacts, interviews, and literature to triangulate the self reflective data. Then she discusses how to classify, sort, code, and refine the data, how to analyze and interpret it, and finally, how to choose among the different styles in which it might be written. She briefly suggests four kinds of writing: descriptive realistic writing, confessional emotive writing, analytic interpretive writing, and imaginative creative writing. The book ends with six appendices, which include a bibliography, writing exercises, and examples of data and autoethnographic writing, primarily from Chang’s own work.

This book is written by a competent ethnographer who has studied the role of the self in research, and the relationship of self to culture, and desires [End Page 361] to provide that knowledge for those who want to include the self in their ethnographic research. This book will be useful for ethnographers who work from a traditional realist perspective and who want to reflect on personal experience in a...