The Autoethnography: Ten Examples
Choosing a Topic
For our final project for the class, you will be asked to select a subculture that you have currently chosen to be a part of or one that you will choose to connect yourself to and to investigate this subculture in a larger research paper called an autoethnography.
For this immediate assignment, I would like you to identify two subcultures that you are currently a part of and that you would find interesting to research. For each of the subcultures you identify, I would like you to give a brief description (three to four lines or more if necessary) that gives an overview of what the subculture is and your position in the subculture (how long you’ve been a part of it and how you feel about it).
From these two options, you will be choosing a topic for your final research paper. We will be sharing these ideas with the entire class. Please be as specific as possible. Your topics must fulfill the following criteria:
You must be able to do background and preliminary research on your topics. In other words, written and visual material must be readily available for analysis.
Topics must be local and accessible.
There must be a place, field site, or event space for the topic that you will be able to visit at least twice during the semester.
There must be at least two people you can interview who have different roles relevant to the topic.
Topics must be new and cannot overlap with research topics in any other course work.
The purpose of the interview is to help you gain insight into the perspective of another member of your subculture. This can be valuable on a number of levels and for a number of reasons. It can help you understand the subculture more as an outsider, offer additional information you can use to examine your own positionality, and provide interesting narrative content for the final project.
As you plan for your interview, consider what information you would like to get out of the interview, and write out your questions accordingly.
For this assignment, write up a minimum of ten questions you plan to ask your interviewee. Make sure the questions are in an order that is logical. This will allow you to know what you intend to get out of an interview and enable you to adapt when an interviewee inadvertently answers more than one question at a time or shares information you would like to ask about in greater depth.
Make sure you ask leading questions rather than questions that can be answered with one-word responses. It is helpful to incorporate phrases such as these into your interview questions: “Tell me a story about the time…”; “Can you explain in detail when…”; “Describe your favorite memory about . . “; “At length, describe….”
This kind of questioning will help your interviewee to feel comfortable and willing to share more information about which you can then ask follow-up questions.
Interviews can be conducted in various ways: through online chats, via telephone or in person. Each method has its own plusses and minuses, so be aware that they will yield different products.
In-person interviews are usually the most productive in that they allow you to take notes on the interviewee’s manner, dress and composure in addition to getting your verbal answers. The benefit on online interviews conducted in writing is that they are already written up for you, and the task of writing up in-person interviews is time-consuming. You will miss out on observation details, however, in any form that is not face-to-face.
Please bring to class at least one set of questions with a brief description of whom you will be interviewing, what you already know about that person and what you would like to learn from her or him. Ultimately, you will be picking two people to interview and writing questions for each interview.
When we engage in autoethnographic writing, it is important to try to re-create the spaces we are visiting—in other words, to explore the field sites where we are spending our time.
As part of our larger assignment, you need to identify a field site that will be relevant for your subculture. This can be a location where it meets, a place where history, event or memory is held.
For this assignment, I want you to walk into a space or event related to your subculture and spend at least twenty minutes there. You will be engaging in a stream-of-consciousness freewrite, making notes on everything you experience with your five senses. As in earlier assignments, I will then ask you to create a narrative from the details you have noted.
Rely on all five of your senses to convey not just what the space looks like but what it feels like. Sight, smell, touch, sight, sound are all important to consider as we try to re-create an environment we are experiencing for an outsider. Do not edit! Just write for the entire twenty minutes in the space without picking up your pen or pencil or relinquishing your keyboard, and see what you come up with!
As you did with earlier assignments, you should write the narrative version of your notes as close to the time of observation as possible.
Putting It All Together
When trying to incorporate your research into a final paper, it is important to realize that you will not be using all of it. As in our essays earlier in the semester, you will be drawing on important pieces of it to make your larger arguments (parts of the observation, pieces of the interview, etc.). You should not try to use all of the information you gathered in the final paper. Any kind of personal and qualitative writing is about making choices and creating narratives and subtext while maintaining your own voice as a participant-observer.
The most important thing to do is to find common threads in your research, identify your main themes and use the information you have gathered, combined with your own narrative understanding or experience, to create your final piece.
Your final paper will end up being roughly six to ten pages long, given the amount of data you have collected. It is important to ask questions as you go through this final drafting process, so please feel free to contact me at any point about concerns and ideas.
When transcribing interviews, please include only your questions and the full responses that will appear as quotes or paraphrases in your final paper. Since transcribing is time-consuming, this will be the most efficient use of your time. I ask you to attach these documents as well as the observations you completed to the final paper.
You will be asked to present your findings and read a brief piece of your project on the last day of class.
These essays went through multiple drafts at each point. Observations, interviews, and the final draft were all peer and instructor reviewed.
Adriana explores Anarchism in New York.
Tyana explores the group Student Activists Ending Dating Abuse (SAEDA).
Hannah explores the world of computer programmers.
Heather explores the world of Bronies.
Jillian explores modern artistic taxidermy.
Emma explores a religious institution for the first time.
William explores the world of Manhattan Drag.
Joomi explores National Novel Writing Month.
Justine explores the world of Manhattan-based metal band Steel Paradise.
Neziah Doe explores science culture on YouTube.