In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Autoethnography

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Historical Sources
  • Literary and Cultural Studies
  • Critiques
  • Methods
  • Ethics
  • Writing Autoethnography
  • Narrative Ethnography
  • Autoethnographic Memoir
  • Autoethnography and Academia
  • Autoethnography and Illness
  • Autoethnography and Migration
  • Indigenous Autoethnography
  • Autoethnographic Fiction

Anthropology Autoethnography
Deborah Reed-Danahay
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 February 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0162


The term autoethnography is subject to different interpretations and some controversy. It can refer to the ethnography of one’s own group but also to the use of personal narrative in ethnographic writing. Sometimes these two meanings overlap, but they may not. In both cases, however, autoethnography is a genre that places the self of the researcher and/or narrator within a social context. It refers to works that provoke questions about the nature of ethnographic knowledge by troubling the persistent dichotomies of insider versus outsider, distance and familiarity, objective observer versus participant, and individual versus culture. Moreover, it reflects a view of ethnography as both a reflexive and a collaborative enterprise, in which the life experiences of the anthropologist and our relationships with our interlocutors should be interrogated and explored. Autoethnography, broadly conceived, stands at the intersection of three genres of narration and critical reflection that may overlap in any particular work. These include portraits of a social group the author-anthropologist is affiliated with; life writing or other autobiographical acts that incorporate ethnographic description of their social group; and anthropological writing that includes reflexive descriptions of research experiences during ethnographic fieldwork. When the term “autoethnography” is associated with an overemphasis on the experiences and feelings of the researcher, the other meanings and implications of the term may be overshadowed and its value to critical perspectives in anthropological research diminished. As with the term ethnography, with which it is deeply tied, autoethnography has been adopted and used widely outside of anthropology. It has appeared in discussions of ethnography since the mid-20th century but has taken on new meanings and deployments since the 1990s. The section headings used in this article must not be taken as mutually exclusive or exhaustive, given that many of the texts cited address and/or incorporate various aspects of what can be called “autoethnography.”

General Overviews

Although not always using the term “autoethnography,” these essays provide important contextual histories to the trends associated with this term. These are all good resources from which to begin understanding fundamental issues and controversies in anthropology related to insider versus outsider perspectives, self-reflexivity in ethnographic research and writing, and the uses of biographical methods. Brandes 1982 was the first to place autobiographical writing by anthropologists and indigenous autobiographies elicited by anthropologists from their research participants in the same context. Tedlock 1991, taking this further, focuses primarily on writing by ethnographers that incorporates personal narrative and autobiography. Reed-Danahay 1997 provides the first comprehensive historical overview of the term “autoethnography,” including sources in anthropology and literary criticism. See also Reed-Danahay 2001 for a broader discussion of issues of power and representation in ethnographic life writing. Neumann 1996 focuses on the crisis of representation in ethnographic writing and sees autoethnography as a way to overcome a dialectic between self and culture. Coffey 1999 and Collins and Gallinat 2010 address the relationship between fieldwork and the self of the ethnographer, reviewing various approaches to incorporating the self into research and writing. Ellis, et al. 2011 outlines arguments for autoethnography as primarily a method that entails self-writing by the researcher, with benefits both to qualitative research and the self. Although he does not use the term “autoethnography,” Agassi 1969 provided an important overview of the underlying premises to such an approach.

  • Agassi, Joseph. 1969. Privileged access. Inquiry 12:420–426.

    DOI: 10.1080/00201746908601563

    Excellent historical and philosophical introduction to the premises and implication of the notion that each person is the authority on their own experience. Discussion of critiques and opposing ideas about this position in the work of figures such as Freud and Malinowski.

  • Brandes, Stanley. 1982. Ethnographic autobiographies in American anthropology. In Crisis in anthropology: View from Spring Hill, 1980. Edited by E Adamson Hoebel, Richard Currier, and Susan Kaiser, 187–202. New York: Garland.

    Provides good historical context to issues in life writing and ethnography. Primarily a discussion of autobiographies written or recounted by individuals from non-Western societies that were elicited by anthropologists but also attention to autobiographies written by anthropologists who turn their methods back upon themselves.

  • Coffey, Amanda. 1999. The ethnographic self: Fieldwork and the representation of identity. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    DOI: 10.4135/9780857020048

    Comprehensive overview of the ways in which the “self” of the researcher has entered ethnographic writing. Covers such topics as embodiment, interpersonal relationships, sex and romance, and issues of authority and representation. Draws upon the author’s own experiences in the field.

  • Collins, Peter, and Anselma Gallinat. 2010. The ethnographic self as resource: An introduction. In The ethnographic self as resource: Writing memory and experience into ethnography. Edited by Peter Collins and Anselma Gallinat, 1–24. New York and Oxford: Berghahn.

    Overview of “experience-near” approaches to both doing research “at home” and elsewhere in which the self of the anthropologist or sociologist is visible in ethnographic writing.

  • Ellis, Carolyn, Tony E. Adams, and Arthur P. Bochner. 2011. Autoethnography: An overview. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung/Forum: Qualitative Social Research 12.

    Overview of autoethnography by leading figures in this field from sociology and communication studies that emphasizes self-reflection and a methodology incorporating the researcher’s own experience, emotions, and subjectivity. Autoethnography is advocated as a process and product of research that is socially just and potentially therapeutic.

  • Neumann, Mark. 1996. Collecting ourselves at the end of the century. In Composing ethnography: Alternative forms of qualitative writing. Edited by Carolyn Ellis and Arthur P. Bochner, 172–197. London: Altamira.

    Autoethnography defined as a convergence of an ethnographic impulse and an autobiographical impulse. Author employs personal narrative in this discussion, which covers memoir and philosophy as well as ethnography.

  • Reed-Danahay, Deborah. 1997. Introduction. In Auto/ethnography: Rewriting the self and the social. Edited by Deborah Reed-Danahay, 1–17. Oxford and New York: Berg.

    The first detailed history of uses of the term “autoethnography” in anthropology and literary criticism that viewed it in terms of both ethnographic research conducted among one’s own group and autobiographical writing that has ethnographic interest. Reference to native anthropology, ethnic autobiography, and autobiographical ethnography.

  • Reed-Danahay, Deborah. 2001. Autobiography, intimacy and ethnography. In Handbook of ethnography. Edited by Paul Atkinson, Amanda Coffey, Sara Delamont, John Lofland, and Lyn Lofland, 407–425. Los Angeles: SAGE.

    DOI: 10.4135/9781848608337.n28

    Comprehensive review and discussion of ethnographic practices that deploy life writing and associated issues of power and representation. Past, present, and future trends are identified.

  • Tedlock, Barbara. 1991. From participant observation to the observation of participation: The emergence of narrative ethnography. Journal of Anthropological Research 47:69–94.

    DOI: 10.1086/jar.47.1.3630581

    Highly influential discussion of the turn toward reflexivity in ethnographic writing since the 1970s. Includes discussion of first-person field accounts and research done in one’s own culture as “auto-ethnography.”

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