Beki Grinter

The Autobiographical Turn

In discipline, empirical, HCI, research on August 2, 2012 at 10:46 am

There has been a turn towards the autobiographical in some ethnographic research. The idea is that by sharing one’s autobiography—the relevant parts—that it will make it easier for the reader to understand the analysis process. Understand where, you, the analytic instrument starts.

When I first learnt about this I thought that that was very valuable. I thought that it would be useful to understand something about where the author stands with respect to the material. I also knew from experience in studying religion that people made various assumptions about my beliefs (ranging from atheism to fundamentalism). Realizing how any position along that continuum could be applied to my motives for the research made me think that putting something clearly out there was potentially very useful.

But lately I’ve been thinking that there is a problem. Putting something about yourself into a research publication puts it into the professional public forum. Most of the time we spend in professional forums is very carefully managed to create a good impression. But is that what we bring to analysis? If we bring parts of ourselves to analysis, is it more/as likely to be the far more complex experiences of our lives? Do the experiences that shape us mostly deeply come from the types of things that are easy to share or are far more complex and not something that we would choose to put into the professional domain? More  cynically, I began to wonder whether sometimes the autobiographic turn was being used in pursuit of professionalism (but that was me at my most cynical).

Back to the question of my religion. I have wrestled with writing about my religious position, and in the end I find that I am relatively uncomfortable in writing about it autobiographically because to make it useful in any meaningful way I would have to reveal far more and discuss a whole set of choices and experiences that I have little desire to share with the HCI research community. Here’s my religious position, I have no strong position on the question of religion. Of course that’s very convenient because it fits nicely into a professional position—the type of distance is in line with ideas about how empirical science is conducted). Also in the absence of knowing far more, doesn’t seem to be helpful. It’s a nice way (of course) of saying “its complicated.”

And now when I read these autobiographical turns I find myself asking two questions: how is what you are telling me tied to the professional image that you are trying to project, and what is being omitted as a consequence.

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