Writing has long been a way to support my mental health and wellbeing. It has helped make sense of and process difficult thoughts and feelings which have arisen in times of despair. It has helped me record and remember times of joy and everything in between. The act of writing has been a constant companion, an act of self-care and a way to express myself. Two years ago, I discovered Autoethnography, a research method and style of writing which would help me to join the dots of a scattered life and give me new purpose.

What is Autoethnography?

Autoethnography is a compelling qualitative research method which enables personal experience to be explored and connected to wider cultural, social, and political understandings. Autoethnographies are ‘highly personalised accounts that draw upon the experience of the author/researcher for the purpose of extending sociological understanding’ (Sparkes, 2000, p.21). This gives us a unique viewpoint from which to contribute to the social sciences and challenge the notion that research relying solely on ‘legitimate data’ used traditionally in science and research is the only method that is helpful. Many of us who have encountered mental health difficulties have found our personal stories discounted within service and health care settings in favour of checklists, diagnostic categories, and limited treatment pathways. Making sense of our difficulties through recounting personal stories is an underestimated way of making sense of our lives and may give us opportunities to shape the health services of the future.

Autoethnography is comprised of three components, auto (self), ethno (socio cultural connection) and graphy (writing). Writers using this method will vary in their reliance on each component and its important to mention here that there are various methods involved which include film making and drama-based approaches. This qualitative based method grew out of, ‘the crisis of representation’ in the second half of the twentieth century which acknowledged the lack of human stories, aesthetic considerations, emotions, and embodied experiences in research projects (Holman Jones et al, 2013, p29). A growing resistance to the dominant use of ‘traditional data’ recognised there was a lack of subjectivity, a lack of people’s real-life stories and therefore a lack of representation for those whose lived experience might strengthen our understanding of what might help people to rebuild their lives and move forward. For me, this is the most exciting and motivating part of this research method. The opportunity to use our lived experience as ‘legitimate data’ to help shape the future of care provision emboldens me to pick up my pen and begin to write.

Why should you pick up your pen?

The actor and comedian Lenny henry once famously said: ‘if you don’t control your narrative somebody else will.’ I have certainly spent many years believing the stories other people have created about my life which has caused much pain and distress and a feeling that I have little agency to forge my own future. The esteemed autoethnographer, Professor Alec Grant, visiting professor at Bolton University coined the term, ‘narrative entrapment’ which summarises how we can often fall prey to other people’s versions of ourselves especially when we lack relational or social power to directly challenge these narratives. Autoethnographic writing gives us a vital opportunity to raise our own voices, have our own stories heard and contribute to new understandings. It also gives us opportunities to challenge dominant and prevailing narratives within existing research and theory, and to ‘disrupt taboos, break silences, and reclaim lost and disregarded voices,’ (Grant, A, 2023). Aswell as stories from the past, writing can give us a way of imagining ourselves into a new future version of ourselves, to ‘write oneself into a preferred identity (Grant and Zeeman, 2012).

Not for the fainthearted!

Often people assume that because we are writing about our own stories that we do not have to consider issues around confidentiality, informed consent, and ethics. This is misguided because when we explore our own life’s stories, we invariably involve our families, friends, work colleagues and potentially other people who have crossed our path i.e. health professionals. This means that we must pay attention to these ethical concerns and explore our reasons and motivations in writing our stories. I have added a recent paper by Professor Andrew Sparkes to the resources section in which you can explore ethical considerations. Other critics refer to the approach as a narcissistic substitution for proper research (Delamont, 2009) partly because it is often written in the first person. As with most things, especially burgeoning approaches that challenge the dominant status quo, it will likely bring challenge, but if autoethnography is crafted with integrity and rigour it is as rich and demanding a research method as any other. I have also added a resource to support you in exploring whether you are on the right track with your interest in autoethnography written by the world leading autoethnographer, Professor Alec Grant.

Finally …

I think my favourite quote hails from an exploration on what it is to write the personal, write our own stores in the service of ourselves and others:
It is often dirty work, this digging into the rich soil of humanity. Digging into our humanity, we cannot keep the soil out from under our nails, the clay off our faces and the sand away from the folds of our skin. We write with humanity about that which makes us remember our humanity, that which makes us human’ (Lockwood, 2001, p118).

For me writing has become a way of life, given me a purpose when all else was stripped away and connected me back to a part of myself that I thought was forever lost. I hope you find a way to explore the approach and that it ignites and encourages you to write what is in your heart.

There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.
Zora Neale Hurston

Author: Kirsty Lilley

References

Grant, A.J. (2023). ‘Crafting and recognising good enough autoethnographies: a practical guide and checklist,’ Mental Health & Social Inclusion, Vol. 27 No. 3. Pp. 196-209
https:// doi.org/10.11 08/MHSI – 01- 2-23 – 0009
Grant, A. and Zeeman, L (2012), ‘Whose story is it? An autoethnography concerning narrative identity’ The Qualitative Report (TQR) Vol. 17 No. 72, pp. 1-12
Holman Jones, S, Adams, T.E. and Ellis, C. (Eds) (2013) Handbook of Autoethnography. Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, CA.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography. J. B. Lippincott Company, 1942.
Lockford, L. (2001). Talking dirty and laying low: A humble homage to humanity. In L. C. Miller & R. J. Pelias (Eds), The green window: Proceeding of the giant city conference on performative writing (pp. 113- 121). Southern Illinois University.
Sparkes, A. C. (2000). Autoethnography and narratives of self: Reflections on criteria in action. Sociology of Sport Journal, 17, 21-43

Resources

Grant, A.J. (2023). ‘Crafting and recognising good enough autoethnographies: a practical guide and checklist,’ Mental Health & Social Inclusion, Vol. 27 No. 3. Pp. 196-209
https://doi.org/10.1108/MHSI-01-2023-0009
Sparkes, A. C. (2024): Autoethnography as an ethically contested terrain: some thinking points for consideration, Qualitative Research in Psychology,
DOI: 10.1080/14780887.2023.2293073