Literature Review: Autoethnography and Action Research
Within this literature review two emerging research methodologies will be discussed: Action research and autoethnography. Each of these methodologies has their own purposes, powers and strengths and both differ from other traditional forms of academic research. To gain an understanding of these methodologies, 16 pieces of empirical research have been used. Although two articles are dated back to the 1990s, the majority of research is from the 2000s and onward. This review will begin by discussing action research. First, there will be an analysis of the research platform which will demonstrate the stance, approaches, positioning and history behind this methodology. Second, the role of the researcher will be critiqued which will reveal the researcher’s responsibilities, obligations and functions. Autoethnography will then take the same format as action research. First there will be an analysis of its research platform, then second, a critique of the researcher’s role. Finally there will be a discussion which puts both methodologies into perspective for my own future research. Subheadings will be used throughout the review to guide the reader. Action research platform
In the 1940s, Kurt Lewin coined the term ‘action research’. Within this new paradigm, Lewin included two ideas. First, action research was to be based on knowledge which was created through academic research. Second, it was to be based on knowledge which was created while intervening in practice (Bargal, 2008). Although this term was coined 70 odd years ago, this methodology is described as being emergent in nature (Costello, 2011). It is a methodology which has shown to constantly develop over time through the introduction of new models, cycles and justifications for its stance in social science research. Particularly in the last 15 years, the recognition of action research as a valued methodology has changed. In 1999, Avison et al. commented that the academic community had almost totally ignored action research. Across 19 academic journals, only one in 155 articles included action research. More recent literature however has pointed out that action research is now considered a legitimate research methodology as it has flourished across various academic disciplines (Bargal, 2008) including
medicine, law, nursing, teaching and business (Palak, 2013). Although this methodology has thrived in recent years, criticisms exist in regards to its scientific basis. Costello (2011) highlighted that some academics view action research as ‘not being scientific enough’ (p. 22). Particularly in education, this realm has thought to be operating largely on ideologies and professional consensus. In disagreement of this, Davis (2013) has noted that action research in education involves complex, analytical, cultural and political processes which have challenged core beliefs, strategies and structures. Furthermore, Palak (2013) has pointed out that like other types of research, this methodology has rigor through its scientific method of inquiry. It involves the asking of questions, collection of data and thorough analysis. Action research is defined primarily by its research design (Mackenzie et al., 2012). Across a range of literature, the purposes and characteristics of action research have shown to be similar. Beginning with Costello (2011), action research is thought of as a process which includes systematic reflection, inquiry and action. These are carried out by individuals to aid their own professional practices. This type of research allows professionals to study their own practice in order to improve, change and reform. Parallel to this, Mackenzie et al. (2012) has noted that action research involves three stages: inquiry, action and reflection. Through these stages there are identified opportunities for practitioners to improve knowledge and understanding, influence social action and open up new areas of inquiry. Furthermore, Bargal (2008) defines action research as ‘…undertaking action and studying that action as it takes place’ (p. 23). This methodology has been characterised as an interactive cycle consisting of identifying problems, diagnosing, developing intervention and evaluating the outcomes to find what has been achieved and to plan further interventions. In this research, Bargal (2008) highlights the importance of bringing together action and reflection and theory and practice. It is suggested that action research should be done in participation with others in the aim of making social change for the betterment of policy and practice. Although the purposes and characteristics of action research are similar between researchers, criticisms of this methodology lie in the restrictiveness and ‘confusing array’ of models (Davis, 2013; Costello, 2011). With a large variety of models, a few examples are given here to show
the variation between each. Costello (2011) refers to an action research model by Denscombe (2007, p.126). This model demonstrates the cyclical process of action research and includes five components: professional practice, critical reflection, research, strategic planning, and action. The idea of this framework is that it involves beginning with professional practice and reflecting on this. It is through reflection that there may be an identification of an issue or problem and it is this issue which requires research. Once an inquiry is completed, the research findings become the starting point for the instigation and development of an action plan. Action and change have an effect on professional practice. From here, the cycle begins again where critical reflection allows the researcher to assess changes made. Different to this, Costello (2011) brings to light another model by Bassey (1998, pp. 94-95). Consisting of eight stages, this framework includes the following: Defining the enquiry, describing the educational situation, collecting and analysing evaluative data, reviewing the data and looking for contradictions, tackling a contradiction by introducing some aspect of change, monitoring the change, analysing evaluative data concerning the change, reviewing the change and deciding what to do next. This framework is underpinned by three fundamental questions: What is happening now (stages one to four)? What changes do we make (stage five)? And, what is happening when we make changes (stages six to eight)? Alternative models to these may be simpler and can include a smaller number of steps. Mackenzie et al. (2012) has provided a framework which involves three steps: Inquiry, action and reflection. The inquiry stage involves identifying problems and methods to address the problem. Action entails making a change in a situation which is closely monitored, and reflection requires observing the effects of the action and reflecting on the results. Differing from other traditional forms of research, to undertake action research, one must adopt a model. Often however, these models can be thought of as too prescriptive and restricting in nature (Costello, 2011; Davis, 2013). Some researchers have suggested that the tight nature of these models may trap practitioners within a framework, which in turn may limit independent action (Costello, 2011; Rademaker, 2013). Contrary to this however, other researchers have pointed out that although there are various models to choose from, the emphasis should be
placed on the choice of the model and not the prescription (Palak, 2013; Costello, 2011). Costello (2011) and Avison (1999) both agree on the importance of research projects being structured. The process, structure and included and excluded aspects of the research must be made clear to all stakeholders a part of the process. Costello (2011) furthers these thoughts by highlighting the need for researchers to decide on a model which is likely to facilitate them in achieving their goals of the research. This may include selecting carefully from a range of models or possibly making one’s own personal model. Role of the action researcher
Across four pieces of literature, the action researcher is demonstrated to be one who is an equal partner in the research process (Bargal, 2008; Avison et al., 2010, Groundwater-smith, 2009; Mackenzie et al., 2012). The researcher is one who works together with practitioners and stakeholders to help improve practice (Avison et al., 2010; Bargal, 2008). According to Bargal (2008), the researcher is shown to form partnerships with all participants involved in the process. Through partnerships, the researcher is able to facilitate the action research model, process and procedures. In working alongside stakeholders, ideas can be collaborated which in turn may maintain and develop motivation to participate. Avison et al. (2009) stated that action research is an iterative process, involving repetition and reiteration until a desired goal is met. It is in this process that the researcher acts together with practitioners and facilitates the chosen cycle of activities. This includes working together through problem diagnosis, action intervention and reflective learning. Similar to this, Groundwater-Smith (2012) also suggested that action research should be collaborative in nature. Those who have an effect on or are affected by the issue should be involved in the action research process. It is said however that although this type of research is collaborative, the researcher must hold a strong focus with a sense of direction and purpose. In doing so, this may keep the process moving and on track. In research by Mackenzie et al. (2012), action research has been characterised by researchers who enter into a collaborative partnership to facilitate improved practice. In this, there is a ‘blurring of the distinction between the researcher and the researched’ (Mackenzie et al., 2012, p. 12). Researchers, practitioners and stakeholders
collaborate together to co-generate new understandings and knowledge through an ongoing process of inquiry and combined implementation of findings. Relating action research specifically to education, often the action researcher may be the teacher themselves (Costello, 2011; Milton-Brkich et al., 2010). A general purpose of this type of action research allows for teaching professionals to gather information about how their school operates, how they conduct their teaching and how their students learn. These teachers enhance their own teaching through developing hypotheses about their own practice. Costello (2011) has suggested that teachers should be at the forefront of educational research where educational theories can be put to the test. This idea holds significant importance as there has been a widening gulf between classroom practitioners and researchers, where research has failed to take into account the real experiences of teachers and their classrooms (Costello, 2011; Bargal, 2008). Traditionally, research has been an activity which has been done to practitioners, rather than by them. Consequently, teachers have found difficulty in accessing research related to their practice because of the style they are written in and their location. With this defeating the objectives of educational research, there is now a shift from the teacher being researched to the teacher being the researcher. Teachers leading their own action research therefore must have the willingness and ability to ask relevant questions, test ideologies and assumptions, query evidence and reasons to support arguments, make connections with educational practices and theories, implement activities or interventions, observe outcomes and reflect (Costello, 2011). Teachers undertaking action research should collaborate with other teaching professionals in order to work together and learn from one another (Milton-Brkich et al., 2010). For all types of action research, the researcher must also take on the following roles. First, the researcher must be committed as there is a high level of personal investment involved in the process. This requires the researcher to develop tight personal relationships with all stakeholders (Avison et al., 1999; Bargal, 2008). Second, the researcher must have the ability to coordinate multiple activities and people. They must facilitate knowledge and language exchange between participants and ensure organisational standards are met in order to maintain cohesion and structure of the process (Avison et al., 1999;
Costello, 2011). Third, the researcher must have a high level of reflexivity and sensitivity when mediating the research process as a whole. Reflexivity holds an importance of allowing the researcher to develop and learn through examining what happened on an occasion, as well as analysing how others perceive the event and the researcher themselves. Reflexivity offers an influential way for action researchers to stay effective, challenged and alive in their work (Avison et al., 1999; Davis, 2013; Costello, 2011; Palak, 2013). Lastly, Avison et al. (1999) highlights the importance of the researcher involving themselves in a mutually agreed ethical framework. Action research is more successful when there is no conflict between the researcher and practitioners, or practitioners themselves. With mutually agreed ethical considerations, this allows for a set standard of acceptable principles and boundaries associated with the research process. Autoethnography platform
In 1975 the term ‘autoethnography’ was first used by anthropologist Karl Heider when he conducted research of the Dani people and published an article titled ‘What do people do? Dani Autoethnography’ (Smith-Sullivan, 2008; Ellis, 2004). The term was then modified by David Hayano (1979) where he referred to cultural studies in which the researcher was a full insider and intimately familiar with the studied group. After this time, it took many years for the term ‘autoethnography’ to take root, and in the last two decades this term has been described in various ways (Smith-Sullivan, 2008; Ellis, 2009). According to Smith-Sullivan (2008) and Lee, (2008), the 1990s were a crucial time for the development and growth of autoethnography. In the late 1990s, autoethnography was being understood by more people and the term was being used with a degree of consistency. In review of research by Chang (2012), Childers (2008) and Atkinson (2006), each author turns to Ellis (2004) for her definition of autoethnography. Ellis (2004) describes autoethnography as ‘…research, writing, story and method that connect the autobiographical and personal to the cultural, social and political. Autoethnographic forms feature concrete action, emotion, embodiment, self-consciousness and introspection portrayed in dialogue, scene, characterisation, and plot’ (p. 1). Thus, autoethnography claims literacy writing conventions (Ellis, 2004; Anderson, 2006). Other researchers
demonstrate similar understandings. Goodall (2000) writes, ‘think of autoethnography as writing that rhetorically enables intimacy in the study of culture. Autoethnographers want readers to take what we say personally.’ Atkinson (2006) describes autoethnography as a result of the interaction between a social world and the ethnographer. It is the ethnographer’s interpretation of phenomena that is created through an ethnographic imagination, linked personal experiences and personal engagement within the field and data. Sitting within the field of qualitative research, autoethnography differs from traditional academic writing. Instead of remaining authoritive, neutral and objective, autoethnography shuns this idea and clarifies that writers are a part of the story they tell, a part of their work and are connected with all aspects of their research (Doty, 2010). This methodology speaks truth and allows researchers to push methodological boundaries in order to address research questions that cannot be explored through traditional methods. Conventional research methodologies may be seen as limiting, narrow and parochial. Therefore, autoethnography aims to destroy this by valuing the many ways of writing, speaking, valuing and believing (Colvin, 2013). Among various researchers, many believe that autoethnography should be about making research and writing more accessible to wider audiences. People should be exposed to creative, rich, analytical, purposeful and touching research which is exciting, personal and easy to read (Doty, 2010; Ellis, 2004; Childers, 2008). Furthermore, autoethnography has shown to have the power to make positive and empowering change through the writing styles and voices represented in this type of research. Stories carry huge significance through the issues which can be included in the presence of a story (Doty, 2008; Ellis, 2009). Differing from other types of research, autoethnography is special because of its ability to challenge the status quo. Many researchers agree that this methodology allows them to make work more interesting by connecting with readers in meaningful ways. It allows researchers to bond with readers through making them feel passion, vulnerability, pain, happiness and connection (Ellis et al., 2011; Doty, 2008; Chang, 2012). With there being an appetite for autoethnography nationally and internationally, this is considered a valid research approach (Colvin, 2013). However, like other types of research, criticisms are apparent. Two researchers (Chang, 2012; Atkinson, 2006) have shared concerns
from other academics who query the scholarly purpose and evocative qualities of this type of research. In response to this, a number of researchers have suggested that autoethnography involves the researcher engaging in rigorous cultural analysis and interpretation and it is this quality which separates autoethnography from other genres. Autoethnography is less about descriptive or performative story telling, but rather follows the anthropological and social scientific inquiry approach which is ethnographic in its intent and method (Ellis et al., 2011). By using an ethnographic research process of data collection, analysis, interpretation and the writing of reports, the researcher may gain a cultural understanding of self in interaction with others. It is through profound cultural analysis and interpretation that autoethnography does not remain at the level of descriptive autobiography or memoir (Ellis et al., 2011; Atkinson, 2006; Cann & DuMeulenaere, 2012). Furthermore, Atkinson (2006) and Anderson (2006) stress the importance of creating analytic autoethnography, rather than being lost in subjective and evocative work. Atkinson (2006) advised that it is important to move away from ethnographic research which is generally based on evocative qualities, experimental value and personal commitments. Instead, autoethnography should hold theoretical bases, scholarly purpose and disciplinary conditions. Anderson (2006) argued that researchers should be thinking of autoethnography as analytical, rather than privileging emotion through evocative story telling. For autoethnography to be scholarly and valid, there is a need for thick description, commitment to analysis and an analytical nature (Anderson, 2006; Colvin, 2013). Role
Across a range of literature, the role of the researcher proves to be one who is impassioned, intimate and embodied in their own work. They provide stories which are engaging, heart-felt, dramatic and evocative through layered and concrete detail. The researcher has a responsibility of connecting with their readers to allow them to care, empathise and feel (Ellis & Bochner, 2006; Ellis et al., 2011). They do this by being introspective about their emotions, feelings and motives while being observant of the world around them. With the researcher becoming a part of the data, she/he must allow for deep introspection, vulnerability, self-reflexivity and honesty (Atkinson, 2006; Ellis & Bochner, 2006). In
drawing on work by Ellis et al. (2011), the process of autoethnography requires the researcher to selectively and retroactively write about past experiences. It is through this that autoethnographers must use research literature and methodological tools to analyse their experience and the ways in which others interpret their experience (Ellis et al., 2011; Childers, 2008). This is done through finding patterns of cultural experience found in interviews, artefacts or field notes. Data analysis and interpretation involves the researcher’s focus shifting between others and self (between the personal and social context). With the researcher using a wide lens view, they may see how their own case is related to others, and how their personal case is related to the cultural context (Chang, 2012; Smith-Sullivan, 2008). These patterns can then be described using storytelling methods, including plot development, character and alteration of authorial voice. Ellis et al. (2011) and Lee (2008) both agree that through storytelling methods, the autoethnographer creates personal and meaningful experience (both cultural and personal). Furthermore, because the researcher makes their work relatable, the reader has access to material that they would usually be disregarded from. This then allows for personal and social change to become more possible. Within a range of literature, many researchers highlight the importance of being self-reflexive in autoethnographic research (Anderson, 2006; Atkinson, 2006; Reed-Danahay, 2009; Taber, 2010). Anderson (2006, p. 384) shares this definition of reflexivity: ‘Reflexivity expresses researchers’ awareness of their connection to the research situation and hence their effects upon it’. Because researchers are a part of their research, they must realise they have a reciprocal influence between themselves and the informants and setting. Reflexivity requires introspection at a self conscious level guided by an aspiration of understanding the relation between self, the setting, and others. Atkinson (2006) offers a similar opinion and states that autoethnographic researchers are thoroughly implicated by ‘the phenomena which he or she documents’ (p. 402), meaning the researcher is not independent of the research, nor is she/he a disengaged observer of the social context. Because this type of research is co-created with informants, self-reflexivity allows the researcher to critically examine their own position within the setting (Anderson, 2006; Taber, 2010). In doing so, the
researcher asks pertinent questions such as ‘how does who I am, who I have been, who I think I am, and how I feel affect data collection and analysis?’ (Taber, 2010, p. 18). It is through self-reflexivity that researchers open themselves up to others by allowing informants to really see the researcher. It is through doing so that informants may have more trust in the research process and the researcher themselves may learn more about themselves, others, the research topic and the cultural context. As autoethnographic research relies on personal experience, often the researcher is not the only one implicated by the research process. As the researcher draws on personal occurrences, this may often involve family, friends, or people involved in the researcher’s life. Therefore, the autoethnographic researcher must be aware of ethical implications and should make ethical considerations before, during and after the research process (Ellis et al., 2011; Childers, 2008). As a part of this process, the researcher values the interpersonal ties which are created with her/his participants, and it is these ties which potentially make ethical considerations more complex (Childers, 2008). In this type of research, participants may soon become friends with the researcher, and therefore are not usually regarded as ‘subjects’ only to be used for data gathering purposes. Autoethnographers must then consider the relationships they have with their participants and this must be kept uppermost in their minds while working through the research (Cann & DeMeulenaere, 2012; Ellis, 2009). For much of the research process, the researcher should be obligated to show their work to their participants or those implicated by the research. The purpose of this is to allow the participants an opportunity to acknowledge or respond to what is written by the researcher. This allows the participants to show how they feel and allows them to comment back in regards to their thoughts about how they are represented in the text (Ellis, 2009; Taber, 2010). Similar to traditional ethnography, the autoethnographic researcher also has a responsibility of ensuring privacy, confidentiality and safety. They may adhere to this by adjusting identifying characteristics related to the participants such as the topics discussed, circumstance, or personal characteristics such as name, place, gender, race and appearance (Ellis et al., 2011; Lee, 2008; Doty, 2010). Because the exact recounting of detail is less important than the meaningfulness and essence of the research story, the researcher must
remain open and aware to how the protection of participants influences the integrity of their research. This becomes particularly important as often the researcher has to continue to live in the world with the participants who are a part of the research even after the research has been completed. Discussion
A range of literature has left an understanding of two different types of emerging research methodologies: action research and autoethnography. Both of these methodologies offer their own powers, strengths, weaknesses and purposes. In referring to action research, this has shown to be a methodology which is focused on creating better practice through systematic reflection, inquiry and action. It has a purpose of improving, changing, and reforming to reach better outcomes and practice (Costello, 2011). In regards to my own application of this type of research, I have a desire to use this to improve my own teaching performance and classroom learning. I understand that action research offers a way for practitioners to evaluate their own performance and create positive change. Although there shows to be a confusing array of models involved in action research, the literature has signified the importance of choosing a model which best suits the aims and objectives of the research. With the aim of conducting action research in the future, I will need to choose a model which offers suitability to the environment I am working in and one which is adaptable to my own needs. An action research model discussed by Costello (2011) included the stages of defining the inquiry, describing the educational situation, collecting and analysing data, reviewing the data and looking for contradictions, tackling a contradiction by introducing some aspect of change, monitoring the change, analysing evaluative data concerning the change, review the change and deciding what to do next. A model like this seems applicable to my own research as it is one which provides structure and detailed steps. It is important to me as a novice researcher to have specifically guided steps to allow for security and confidence in the process. Through this model, I will be able to systematically question and transform my own educational practice through determining what is happening, considering changes to be made and analysing the changes made. In regards to autoethnography, this has shown to be a research methodology which differs completely from traditional
academic writing. Stepping away from authoritive, neutral and objective research, this methodology involves the researcher being a part of their own work and the story that they tell. What is attractive to me about this methodology is the researcher’s ability to speak truth, while pushing methodological boundaries to address questions that cannot be explored through traditional methods. In application to my own research, I one day would like to complete a piece of autoethnographic writing. Because this type of research relies on personal experiences, I will wait for the day that I become passionate about a particular experience or issue. When that moment occurs, I will be absolutely honoured to tell a story which provides readers with passionate and embodied research that is exciting, personal and easy to read. At the same time, this research will open me up to personal and spiritual goals while taking part in a journey of self understanding. Self knowledge according to Anderson (2006) comes from understanding our personal identities, lives and feelings while being connected to the socio-cultural settings which we live in. Although not discussed earlier, some of the literature mentioned criticisms of self absorption associated with autoenthnographic research (Cann & DeMeulenaere, 2012; Ellis et al., 2011; Doty, 2010). With some academics thinking that autoethnographers are too self absorbed, Cann and DeMeulenaere (2012) respond by saying, ‘…it’s self-absorbed to pretend that you are somehow outside of what you study and not impacted by the same forces as others. Its self-absorbed to mistakenly think that your actions and relationships need no reflexive thought…’ (p. 155). With personal agreement of this, Doty (2010) further mentions that although autoethnography may involve a quest for self understanding, the research must be more than ‘us’. Therefore in my own research, my aim may be to reach a level of self understanding while writing to do justice to the human beings at the centre of what I am writing about. If in the process of attempting to do justice I learn something more about myself, then that would not be a bad thing. For the second assignment, I am asked to do my own research which places me or my work at the centre of my own inquiry. Thus meaning, I will be both the researcher and the researched. In using either action research or autoethnography to achieve this, these methodologies each hold aspects of thick description, self-reflexivity and are analytical in nature. These methodologies include self-reflexivity through the researcher
opening themselves up to how others perceive the event as well as understanding the position of the researcher within the research process (Costello, 2011). Literature has guided me in understanding that I am a part of the research process and have a reciprocal influence between myself, the participants and setting (Ellis et al., 2011). Because assignment two requires me to be the researcher and the researched, I will need to relieve the process of any bias or self-absorption. This may be done through ensuring my research is analytically written while being self-reflexive before, during and after the research process. Furthermore, both methodologies meet scholarly purpose and are able to resonate with the reader through their analytical nature. Literature concerning both of these methodologies has guided me in becoming ready to undertake assignment two. It has shown that I will need to be a researcher who has the willingness and ability to ask and challenge relevant questions, test ideologies and assumptions, query evidence and reasons to support arguments, make connections with participants and theory while being self-reflexive and analytical throughout the entire process. Conclusion
Within this literature review, two methodologies have been discussed. Action research has shown to be a methodology which is committed to improving the practice of practitioners through continuous cycles of reflection, inquiry and action. Although very different to action research, autoethnography offers a beautiful power of challenging the status quo through connecting the life of a researcher to that of others in cultural contexts. Together, these have both formed new ways of thinking about research through their individuality and unique principles and functions. They are both concerned with pushing the boundaries by not hiding from one’s own experiences. I have no doubt that these two methodologies are true, real and valid. Although they are types of research which are different to traditional forms of research, they each offer their own uniqueness and purpose. With both being emerging in nature, I look forward to the following years and my own research career where I will continue to see their development and growth among the field of qualitative research.
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