I recently attended a webinar [Meet & Eat] Autoethnography in Online Doctoral Education which I very much enjoyed. One of the presenters asked a question of the audience that got me thinking, and I am really thinking out loud as I write this post:

How do we challenge an autoethnography? How do we challenge personal experience?

I answered briefly in the chat to say that I would not challenge any one else’s interpretation, but rather I would offer my own interpretation and ask for them to comment about it. I also mentioned that this was the approach that used in my own PhD thesis, and I referred, as I often do, to the parable of the blind men and the elephant:

I don’t know the questioner’s opinion of AE, he didn’t give it, so I don’t want to assume that he was misunderstanding what AE is and is not. But this type of question is often asked by those who do misunderstand the nature of qualitative research – often because they hold to some ideal of universal, objective truth, and they consider qualitative research to be inferior because it does not meet this standard. And the answer to the question from this perspective is to point out that you don’t challenge an AE by simply saying that it is not necessarily true, and that there are other possible interpretations. An AE does not pretend to be objective, and it is open about the fact that it is based on a personal story, although it is not just a story. As Ellis, Adams and Bochner say:

Autoethnography is an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyze personal experience in order to understand cultural experience.

Carolyn Ellis, Tony E. Adams & Arthur P. Bochner (2011)

So rather than asking if an AE is true, we can ask if it is plausible to use the story to understand the relevant experience, whether it is a useful interpretation, whether it helps us to better understand the issues at hand. And, of course, we can ask whether there are other AEs that can help to give us a fuller understanding of it all.

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