The method of autoethnography
BRIEF GUIDELINE FOR AUTOETHNOGRAPHERS RESEARCHING
FORMER JEWISH TOWNSHIPS “THAT DO NOT EXIST”.
This text may disappoint someone, because it does not contain a recipe or protocol for mandatory operations and a questionnaire for respondents. There are no clear instructions on how to proceed, what to do with the finished material, and how to determine that it is finished. In fact, this is not an instruction, but a key to self-tuning. Starting autoethnographic work, you just need to adjust your tuner a little to arouse the creative part in yourself. This is exactly the tuning that this guideline gives (or not). In collective autoethnography, the researcher can always decide what role to choose – to go into the depths of self and relations with the subject of research or to engage in the fixation of samples.
But why precisely autoethnography?
This method was proposed to the participants of the Shtetlfest project as the most appropriate to the study of “disappeared heritage”. When “heritage has disappeared”, what is left and/or who is left? In real tangible reality or in memory, or even in the sense of the presence of memories of a particular object. In a subtle/strong emotional connection to something that is no longer there.
And if at least one person still remembers/feels something about it, can we really say that “everything is gone”?
How do we ourselves feel about it? What prompted us to get in touch with a non-our, alien (is it?) memory of the “disappeared”? Why did it make us interested? In this moment, in this question, lies the trigger for the method of autoethnography. Once you have asked yourself this question, you can set a start date for your autoethnographic research.
*In order to learn more about the method, you can get acquainted with the bibliography (at the end of the text) and (or) watch this workshop organized for the participants of the Shtetlfest project (link).
If we look at the motivation of the project team members, we find that in many cases there is a personal or professional connection to the topic or terrain studied in the project.
“I have a Jewish great-grandmother, but I know very little about my Jewish heritage. I want to close the gap.”
“Before the war, there were many Jewish families living here. There was a whole street with their small shops in Klichaw. They also lived in the territory of the entire district. They were respected by Belarusians. I want to learn more about their culture and revive what we’ll be able to find.”
“I was very interested in the fact that the project will explore the town of Lyubcha, because it is my native place, my mother is from Navahrudak district.”
“I conduct research as part of my doctoral studies on the presence and function of music and dance in the life of Jewish youth in the Second Polish Republic. I recorded in-depth interviews with Holocaust Survivors in Poland and Israel Graduated from the Faculty of Musicology at the University of Warsaw.”
So, the first step is one’s own engagement.
But it is crucial to remember that the key practice in ethnography and autoethnography is the creation of a research diary. You should make writing a regular practice, creating notes as soon as possible after leaving the situation of observation and/or interaction with the informants.
The main principle of ethnographic writing is detailed (rich) description, avoiding value judgments, and having one’s own reflective position.
For example, the phrase “he/she was unfriendly” contains little research information, attributes some behavior (which is not explicitly stated) to another person, and the subject making the assessment is hidden, not taking responsibility for his/her feelings directly. This statement should be unpacked: what is it about her/his behavior that led you to this opinion? Think about this reaction of yours. How can you describe it? How exactly does “unfriendliness” feel? Instead of “what do I think about it,” try answering the question “how do I feel about it, what makes me feel this way?” and write down your answer.
Avoiding value judgments is very difficult; they are much easier to see from the outside. Sharing diary entries with your colleagues at some point of the research might help.
For autoethnography, writing is both a process and a result of research.
However, a year after the end of the Shtetlfest-2021 expedition, analyzing the motivational descriptions from the project participants’ applications and the materials they subsequently collected, we can look more closely at two nuances in the method we chose that we had not noticed before.
The first is that “diary keeping” or “autoethnographic writing” is not always exclusively textual writing.
And the second is that during expedition it is easy to turn from an autoethnographer into a tourist.
However, it is also necessary to note the third point. It is possible to turn from a tourist into an autoethnographer quite quickly.
And so at this point you can…
Go further on the analytical text, and then get acquainted with our collection of materials collected in the expedition and, perhaps, join as an author to the collective autoethnography we started.
Or go straight to the tourist part of our media manual along the non-linear itinerary we developed.
But as you already know, any choice you make will be the right one.
Let’s specify that “non-linearity” is a concept from autoethnographic lexicon, about which we’ll speak further.
But for now, I would like to draw your attention to the ways of autoethnographic recording/reflection/reaction.
One of the Polish members of the expedition group took curious pictures in one of the locations (Bialystok). When looking through the archive, the editor had a feeling that it was not a coincidence that these particular shots were chosen. The editor created her own text note about this fact of fixation of “evidence of Jewish context in modern city public space ” and added her own photos from another location (Navahrudak). Thus, the initial “autoethnographic record” was not text, but photos. You can also continue the collective autoethnography, if you feel in this (or any other) place of our media manual your connectedness to the topic. The contact with the editor is here.
There is an interesting point in the example described above. The participant who created the series of photos in question had no idea that he was already doing collective autoethnographic work when photographing the objects. He was “simply capturing the actual reality through which the expedition group was traveling” with his camera. Focusing on specific markers that later communicated to one of the viewers his motivation to “record” that very thing. And conveyed the impulse to add her own reflection. Of course, for this development of events, the viewer had to be immersed in the research topic.
We present another example of a non-textual autoethnographic recording. One of the Belarusian participants of the group recorded her only (auto)ethnographic video, which she gave to our collection, during a meeting with a priest in the town of Izabielin. She switched on the video camera on her cell phone during their conversation, when the priest began to speak very emotionally about the faith and traditions that made it possible for different religious groups to live together peacefully in a multi-confessional place. When asked (right during the creation of this text) why she decided to videotape this particular episode of the conversation, the participant said: “Because he (the priest) is an interesting interlocutor…”
From the video we can see, however, that she turned on the camera not accidentally at any moment of their “interesting conversation”, but precisely at that particular moment when the priest had already begun to speak on an important (for her personally? for our collective research?) topic. Thus, this (un)accidental switching on of the video camera is an autoethnographic recording.
And if while watching this episode (or anywhere else in our media manual) you suddenly feel you have something to say, don’t miss that urge to speak out, write down your thoughts, and then contact the editor and please add your text/photo/video/audio note to our media manual.
And this is where we want to try to answer the naturally occurring question. Why didn’t the Polish participant and the Belarusian participant record their reflections and impressions immediately in text format? Why don’t we see their reflective notes under their photos and videos? Why, in general, did we get enough audio-visual thematic material from the participants of the working group and too little textual material?
We believe because in order to use the method of autoethnography effectively, it is necessary to purposefully and consciously practice writing for a certain period of time. So that spontaneous and chaotic reactions to the surrounding reality, which many of us have long learned to embody through social media (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) turn from impulsive posting into a reflexive method of research of ourselves and sociocultural and/or historical phenomena. In order to approach the object/phenomenon under study with the method of autoethnography, we need to make an effort and turn to our own experiences, live them again, record and name them. This may seem inappropriate, be uncomfortable, feel like something embarrassing or even painful. We also believe that the topic of disappearing Jewish heritage is itself a traumatic one for many people involved.
So, observing the work of the expedition group and analyzing the obtained materials, we can note several important points.
1. The group was made up of people with a fairly good command of ethnographic skills (i.e., the skills to record detached ethnographic interviews) and with a really strong personal interest in the topic of the project.
2. Virtually no one in the group was able to consciously use the method of autoethnography (written recording of their reflections), preferring to remain a detached ethnographer and/or tourist.
3. Almost all participants of the working group were organically included in the autoethnographic process without noticing their inclusion.
Looking at these theses, we can conclude that this qualitative condition of the project’s working group was useful for capturing valuable memories and reflections of informants and verifying objects of disappearing cultural and historical heritage in former Jewish townships. This is not a full-fledged autoethnographic study, but obviously gave the project the initial material for the subsequent collective autoethnographic work.
Thus, even at this moment, by virtually traveling along the non-linear route that we have developed, you can find something that resonates with you personally.
Perhaps you will want to become a real tourist and physically move to the places we offer in order to see specific objects in the locations of the route, as some members of our working group did directly during the expedition. Which will undoubtedly work for the purpose and sustainability of our EU-funded project.
But perhaps you will join our collective autoethnography, or perhaps you will begin to create your own, analyzing the theme of “the vanished heritage of former Jewish townships” and adding your unique perspective and valuable experience to the common information field. This is the humanitarian ubergoal of our project, which aims to preserve and revitalize the cultural heritage of former Jewish townships.
“Former Jewish townships” sound like “deserted ruins”. But it is not quite so. The subject of the research is people. Their presence in the past. Their past and our past. And their presence in the present. Our present and their present. The way to approach the subject of the research is to feel and realize the connection between us and them. And this connection can be very deep, painful, barely perceptible, poorly realized, powerful, subtle. Of any kind.
Therefore, you can help yourself by trying to remember several important points throughout the work.
1. There are no failures in qualitative research. We do not perceive what is happening under the influence of our expectations in terms of success or failure. Any information obtained is meaningful. Research questions can and should be redefined as you go along. You shouldn’t find what is fixed in the project description beforehand. It is important to remain flexible and be able to adapt the research objectives throughout the research process.
2. Qualitative research relies on a complex understanding of social reality. Reality is not universal and objective; it is multifaceted, contradictory and associated with the perception of a specific person or group of people.
3. When, at first glance, subjects and objects for research (people with certain knowledge or experience, traditions and artifacts) do not physically exist or cannot be found, qualitative researchers work with silence, forgetting, ignoring, expulsing specific groups and topics or with how they (these people and topics) continue to exist in ourselves. The task is to return visibility to the group under study, to see it from the present moment.
4. Our biases get in the way if they are not reflected. In this case, they do not allow us to see the multifaceted nature of social reality, enclosing it in some kind of framework. When we analyze them, they turn into material for research and indicate how culture works through us.
5. Memory is not linear, just like life. The thematic is intertwined with the chronological. It is important to realize that we do not have access to the past as such, but we have the opportunity to learn about how the past lives now. Any memories perform some function in the present – as a rule, they support our image of ourselves (if we are talking about personal memories).
6. Autoethnography is also not linear. The project time is not divided into theoretical training, field stage and subsequent data processing. The researcher is constantly keeping in mind all three stages, constantly returning and circulating between different stages of research.
7. Autoethnography is ethnography + writing. Autoethnography dissolves boundaries between literary and scientific writing in terms of comprehensibility and emotionality of the text and the attempt to engage the audience in some experience. However, unlike a literary text, there is no fiction in autoethnographic writing, it is a way of presenting research data.
8. Analyzing one’s own experience presupposes a certain amount of courage, since it involves exposing something personal. This makes the researcher vulnerable, open to outside gaze and judgment. However, it is important to understand that the exposure of personal experience is not a demonstrative act and not a value in itself. Personal experience is analyzed in such a way as to show the work of the social aspect in it or as a reflection of culture. It is important to make a conscious decision about how willing you are to work with your experience and write about yourself.
9. If you have not changed the method after the previous paragraph, consider that autoethnography can have a therapeutic effect for both you and the community. If you have already chosen this topic, and it does not let you go, you are here for a reason. Perhaps you have begun to regain some part of yourself and discover “…the space where biography intersects with history, politics, and culture. Autoethnography re-tells and re-performs these life experiences as they intersect in these sites. The life story becomes an invention, a re-presentation, an historical object often ripped or torn out of its contexts and recontextualized in the spaces and understandings of the story.”
(с) Interpretative autoethnography
Specific recommendations (which may not be followed) and the ethics of communication with informants (which can be adapted to the situation).
1. Write down your impressions and ideas at once, being in the moment of events and reflections. Preferably using your voice. Then you will make a transcript. If you leave writing for later, your memory will let you down, and in writing you will want to be consistent and literate and you will lose your uniquely subtle connection with the subject.
2. Be alone with the informant or with someone, but in an emotionally close bond. The trauma is transmitted as silence. You should be minimally “dangerous” for the informant. Whether a person starts talking depends on how subtly you are in tune for the conversation yourself, how ready, how much you want and like to listen. How interested you are in others. Whether you will be able to become co-participants on this journey into memory and personal issues.
3. Don’t be an executioner. You are offering the informant an immersion in a very difficult process. And one can become a carrier of trauma, be deeply traumatized even through generations. These frozen areas are “thawed” by love, resources, and a psychotherapist. It is important not to harm the informant. Do not provoke emotions (as does a third-rate TV show). Do not cure. Do not assess. Do not judge. Listen and respectfully support their emotions.
4. Do not expect answers supporting your assumptions, specificity and accuracy. You are not a statistician or a census agent. Set aside your pragmatic questionnaire and set yourself up in a philosophical tone.
5. Try to go beyond the surface level in conversation. Our research topic has “blockers” of immersion in the depth of experience and personal history, such as:
-the Holocaust trauma (on both sides, like “I want not to remember how my loved ones were killed because they were Jews” and “I want not to remember how my loved ones killed Jews”);
-popular antisemitism (the need to adapt to local cultures, the inability to practice what is one’s own identity, jokes and anecdotes on Jewish identity);
-systemic antisemitism (career that was closed or limited for Jews because of the “nationality” item, especially in the USSR period, but also at other times – the settlement zone and various economic and status restrictions for Jews);
It is difficult to get memories from under all this stack of traumas, the psyche blocks this area of memory. If you have a feeling that the person is not telling or sharing something, try to hold several meetings in order to build contact and earn trust. Be calm if the conversation at the first meeting consists of socially accepted common phrases.
6. There is another blocker. The coolest plug for the flow of an individual story, which is not easy to extract, is called dominant narrative. The informant can simply reproduce clichés and socially accepted narratives and present ideological constructs as something that is important for you to hear.
The most popular and speculative “plug” in our topic is war, disaster, Holocaust, death, abuse, mass torture. There is a stereotype that if you want people to listen to you and give you their attention, then you need to talk about pain and horror. The ordinary is not interesting to anyone. Not a bit of it! However, it depends on your interest whether the person will be able to switch over and become just as interested in their (or their great-grandmother’s) routine as you are.
But there are similar “plugs” on theinterviewers’ side. For example, “the names of traditional dances”. From the books of academic researchers you know that Eastern European Jews danced a sher, khosidl, and redl. And that in Ukraine freilekhs was called freilekhs, and in Belarus it was called redl. And, yes, it is important for an academic ethnographer to record a sample, its name, place of recording and the informant’s data. But you block yourself and your informants with this knowledge. Because for autoethnography, it is important not to hang a tag with initial data on an object and determine the “distribution area and prerequisites for its emergence”, but to find out why, how, what it is about, what emotions it is about, why it touches you and them (or not) and what you can do with all this.
So yes. Block the blockers.
7. Remember that next to you there is a huge cosmic abyss in which you can drown. This point is about your own psycho-emotional safety, about “not to go astray”. Any question you ask can raise disturbing and painful memories from the bottom of the underworld (crossed out). Both the informant’s and yours. Informants can get stuck in some pieces of the past, cry, drag you along. Do not be intimidated by the expression of emotions – this is energy that needs to be given time to come out. Do not try to ease their ruefulness; it is beyond your power. You just need to be near, to verbally confirm that you see how hard it is for them, and they have the right to all their emotions, you sympathize with this difficult burden that they were carrying in themselves. Just ask what you can do now – bring water, open a window, hold their hand, sit next to them and be silent.
8. Leave correctly. You can cross the line of intimacy with the informant and give a signal you want to continue the communication. Therefore, it is better to warn in advance how long you plan to stay in this place, what you plan to do with their story, whether you will share the results and in what form.
References to the literature about the autoethnography method.
*Carolyn Ellis, Tony E. Adams & Arthur P. Bochner “Autoethnography: An Overview”
*Sara Wall “An Autoethnography on Learning About Autoethnography”
*Kathy Roulston What is Autoethnography?