Review: Collaborative Autoethnography (Chang, Heewon, Faith Wambura Ngunjiri, and Kathy-Ann C. Hernandez)

Chang,  Heewon, Faith Wambura Ngunjiri, and Kathy-Ann C. Hernandez. Collaborative Autoethnography. Walnut Creek, California: Left Coast Press.  2013. ISBN 978-1-59874-556-6  200 pp. Price $34.95 (paper)

Heewon Chang, Faith Wambura Ngunjiri, and Kathy-Ann Hernandez have collaborated to produce  Collaborative Autoethnography.  Coll-aborative Autoethnography (CAE) is a further elaboration of Autoethnography (AE). Researchers in both approaches see themselves as both the subject/informant of the research and the analyst of that research.  In CAE, the researcher/subject is part of a team that collects and analyzes her/his data.    This book is a review of past research in terms of methodology and a handbook on how to do collaborative research.

The authors place CAE and AE in terms of an evolving field of theoretical interest.  Researchers themselves have personal and professional lives that are situated in their institutions and culture(s).  AE (as well as CAE) allows the researcher/subject to turn a lens (p.22—their word) on her/his own life as well as the larger society.

AE has addressed abortions, pregnancy, death and grief, and sexual abuse, among other topics (pp.19-20.)  The book’s authors agree with other students of AE that while rich in data, more can be gained by a more collaborative approach.  Collaborative approaches allow for more depth as well as personal and community building.  At minimum, a collaboration can be two people—the researcher/subject and another researcher. They propose an ideal team of at least one more member.

CAE can focus on traditional academic concerns, with a single or several research focuses.  It can also extend to performance art, wherein “…autoethnographies are written as theater scripts… [or as] a series of poetry, or performance narratives… (p.51.)”  In terms of AAGE’s mission on aging, I can see many places where CAE can be used. A few “personal” examples come to mind.  People are doing “Story” projects in many communities.  Often located in museums or libraries, a person tells her/his story.  Teams of collaborators, whether professionals and/or non-professionals trained by professionals, can engage a person or several people to tell their life stories in greater depth.  Several years ago I taught a discussion class on “Generations” through our local junior college’s Older Adults Program. The discussion group was based in a nursing home.  It could have easily been based in a senior center as well.  The participants  reviewed their lives, providing wonderful information on their similarities and differences according to all our “standard” kinds of foci—gender, class, education, region, job, religion, sexual preference, and so on.  The data were rich and could easily be used to add to histories of different periods. Moreover, the data were enriched by each participant’s interaction with the others when they questioned or reaffirmed or remembered something or some events another had not.   Hopefully, we can find issues worthy of study that we had not expected as well.

As for academic collaborative teams, the authors contend that they  work best when the participants are located where they can have continued social interaction.  They are located in the same city.  They meet for coffee, lunch, dinner, and other events and they meet over time.  In terms of proposed methodologies, they suggest different models of collaboration, which can offer differing degrees of complexity. It would be interesting to see what kinds of data and studies can be gained by on-line collaboration or a mixture of the two.  As noted above, it may be possible to add that to the repertoire of CAE for older people that they can do by themselves or with some help.

As they lay out their models for research and their places in theory, they note that many of the studies involve women in the academy, immigrant experiences, and people of color.  They situate themselves in all the above ways and especially in terms of motherhood (pp.185-6.)  The authors build upon both feminist theory and feminist critique and the whole field of qualitative research.  The ends they seek say it all: “It [CAE] is a transforming process that allows scholars to build community, advance scholarship, engage in social activism, and become empowered in their social context (p.148.)  What makes this book  even more interesting is that as the authors lay out their formulations, they share relevant anecdotes about their own lives.

The authors also address some of the dilemmas this kind of fieldwork entails.  One always has to ask:  How much should I reveal about myself?  How much should I reveal about others—especially without their consent?  How should I present my data?  They recognize that collaboration helps reveal issues that are not always apparent to the subject (p.28.)  Lastly, they see the research process as supportive for the person studied as she experiences or re-experiences trauma or a difficult situation (p.30.)

I have several suggestions for the book.  First, I think the title should have been Collaborative Autoethnography: A Handbook. That makes it clearer as to what the book is about.  Second, the authors should tie their research into other related research about the psychology and anthropology of fieldwork experiences, (cf. Davies and Spencer  2010.)  Third, in terms of my self-disclosure about my comments, I am an anthropologist as well as a licensed psychologist. I would have liked to see much more of a discussion of the handling of trauma and denial, among other psychological issues (e.g., p.29.)  In sum, I would strongly recommend this book for those unfamiliar with this emerging field and who want to do this kind of valuable research.

References
Davies, James and Dimitrina Spencer. 2010 Emotions in the Field: The Psychology and Anthropology of fieldwork Experience. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Richard Zimmer   
Sonoma State University

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