Cards on the table: the benefits of autoethnography

If you were a scientist working in the 1950’s, you would claim that your work, the theory that you subscribed to, and the results of your academic endeavours were all neutral and objective. In the heydays of modernism, the mere suggestion that there were any external, non-scientific influences on your work would have implied a threat to the integrity of that work.

Fast forward 60 years, and you would now find it difficult to acknowledge that your scientific analyses are indeed purely scientific, uninfluenced by any prejudice, and untainted by subjective issues. If you at all considered at some stage using the term ‘objective’ to describe your analyses, you would, like I have just done, make sure that you put it in quotes. What has happened, of course, is that the modernism of the mid-20th century has yielded paradigmatic ground to postmodernist ways.

Have we gained anything with this shift of paradigm?  In a recent article on “Autoethnography and the presentation of belief in scholarly work”, I argue that we have indeed gained. Everyone has a point of departure, though, given the influence of modernism, that point is not always explicitly stated. Autoethnography – recounting where you come from as a researcher, and describing what your motivations are – enables scientists not only to position themselves as to their starting points, but also to declare what those starting points are. There are benefits to be derived from putting one’s cards on the table. There are gains from being aware of the direction that one’s work takes and is taking. It gives clarity and focus, for example, to the reasons why one is undertaking such work in the first instance.

Take the way that we justify the designs we make as applied linguists. My goal and intention in making one such a design, a language test, would be that we not only produce a test that has a theoretically sound basis, but also one that will benefit the test takers, by being compassionate in its effects on them. At the same time I should be able to give a public defence of what the test does, and do my best to ensure that it is useful. That means, inter alia, that its results should be meaningful. Moreover, I would like to have designed a test that, once it has been administered a number of times, will have gained a reputation for being trustworthy.

Yet another benefit of what autoethnography allows us to do is that our students are now not left in the dark as to what motivates their mentors. It enables them to make an informed choice, should our starting points be unacceptable to them in respect of their own beliefs, and the forces that give integrity and wholeness to what they want to do.

For those who would like to read more, the references in my recent article may be useful (as will the article itself, I hope); my students and colleagues may also find out more about my position by reading the interviews (Part 1 and Part 2) that Steve Bishop recently conducted with me. Both of these have enabled me to be mindful of where I am, and what I hope to do and achieve.

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