13:51 11/06/2004 Mathemagenic: Two papers, me in between
on personal productivity in knowledge-intensive environments, weblog research, knowledge management, PhD, serendipity and lack of work-life balance...

Two papers, me in between

This story is a blend of reflections on my PhD methodology, reading notes and narcissi in the sun.

It was inspired by reading a chapter in the handbook of qualitative research:  Auto-ethnography, personal narrative, reflexivity: Researcher as subject by Carolyn Ellis and Arthur Bochner.

Reading it was a special journey and emotional experience, and somehow I had a need to write about it.

15-17 March 2005


Have no idea why writing this paper is so difficult: I have the idea for ages, I decided to write in December when I saw call for papers first, I even found courage to email the editor… Still getting into writing is not easy.

So I'm thinking of writing a paper for the special issue of Reconstruction on blogging. I want to write about blogging as research. Not about researching weblogs or weblogs in academia, even not about using a weblog to document research. What I want to write about is blogging as a way to do research. Not documenting, doing as Jill put it ages ago.

I guess writing doesn't go easy since I'm into the unknown land. I was never very strong writing on methodology, it's much into qualitative and most of my training has been on another end, and now I'm thinking of explaining blogging as research building on parallels with ethnography. I'm lost in books (have you ever tried getting a grasp of research methodology that is so "common sense" and has so many invisible layers at the same time?). I try everything: from reading ethnographies to watching programs about aboriginals and paying more attention to details in Tropenmuseum. It doesn't help much – I just don't know where to start.

Having an experienced ethnographer around would help, but I'm not that lucky, so I just start somewhere.

So far I found something to hold onto – confessional ethnography. I came across it in A confessional account of an ethnography about knowledge work by Ulrike Schultze. That time it was a mix of excitement and lost confidence. Both were not that much about the topic of the study presented in the paper (what could be expected given the focus of my PhD), but about the research approach. It provides an example of ethnography that puts researcher into the picture, something that I need so much to explain how blogging turns into research.


So I read more on confessional writing in ethnography, play with ideas, try to wrap them for a conference proposal, but still thinking of writing a paper for Reconstruction. I write to the editor of the special issue on blogging, Michael Benton, with one paragraph outline where I mention confessional ethnography. Michael returns it back with an encouragement and something like "do you mean autoethnography?"

I haven't come across autoethnography yet, so I answer vaguely that I'm not sure how to call research I'm doing. And I run into Google :)


For the next few days I'm still thinking how to start writing. I don't know how to put my ideas on paper till waking up one morning with an outline emerging in my head. As a run around the house, eat breakfast and get ready to leave for work, the outline ideas are running through my head. I can't resist anymore. There are no meetings scheduled, so I decide to give it a try – writing at home for an hour or so.

I sketch an outline - main things that I want to say – about personal experience of blogging as a starting point that shapes my research questions, about drive of find out why others do not believe my blogging stories (they couldn't be fake even if there is evidence that they are not true for an average weblog – I can't throw away my own experience!), about my learnings from stories others share in reaction to my blog posts, about writing as participation, data collection, feedback on emergent interpretations and final publication (all melted into one), about hard choices of being blogger and researcher at the same time, about all things that make my research so fun and so insecure when I think how to frame it to be a "proper scientist"...

And, of course, I'm not sure how to write it. I look at the pile of papers on autoethnography that I ordered and decide to give it a try. I try some, get lost in the language and then turn into a chapter in handbook of qualitative research, written by Carolyn Ellis and Arthur Bochner – "Auto-ethnography, personal narrative, reflexivity: Researcher as subject".

I had a flavour of Carolyn's writing style when I was searching for references. What counts as scholarship in communication? An autoethnographic response gave a strange impression – impact, connection and uncertainty – I'm still learning that there are cases where I don't have to say "we" in a paper I wrote alone, and she is telling personal story – so openly!?


Anyway, I zoom into the chapter. From the first page it looks like an interesting story, so I make a pot of tea and move to the couch – things in the office could wait a bit longer. Sunshine crawls in to the living room highlighting a vase full of narcissi, first this year. They look like a bunch of green sticks – so closed that it's hard to believe that they can actually turn into flowers.

The chapter starts from a conversation between the authors, Carolyn and Art, discussing how to write about autoethnography for a handbook: by following the conventions calling for an authority providing newcomers with an objective view of the field or by writing in personal voice that would fit the topic better.

I'm thinking what I've learnt about teacher training – teachers-to-be learn most about teaching not from what is in their program, but from the how of it – experiences they are going through while learning. I've always believed in "practice what you preach", but I know that often practicalities and established conventions turn idealistic thinking into a compromise. I'm curious to see how Carolyn and Art will manage.

On the next page I'm introduced to Sylvia Smith, who asks Carolyn to join her PhD committee. I follow their conversation and recognise myself – someone trying to research "objectively" a topic heavily driven by personal experiences and personal passion. I'm hooked into the story as I go with Sylvia through doubts, questions, discovering the power of autoethnographic writing. I'm with Sylvia when she says in her message to Carolyn "this work violates everything I've been taught about social science research, but I'm fascinated and want to know more".

The story gets interlaced with a piece introducing autoethnography. It's a formal scientific text, full of terminology and references, one of those I find so difficult to read.

The term autoethnography has been in circulation for at least two decades. […] David Hayano (1979) is usually credited as the originator or the term. Hayano limited the term to cultural-level studies by anthropologists of their "own people," in which the researcher is a full insider by virtue of being "native," acquiring an intimate familiarity with the group, or achieving full membership in the group being studied (p.100). [p.739]

I'm struggling through the text to learn about different streams of research called autoethnography (confessional tales are mentioned, at least one connection!), trying to find out where my own approach belongs.

Is it reflexive ethnography?

In reflexive ethnographies, the researcher's personal experience becomes important primarily in how it illuminates the culture under study. Reflexive ethnographies range along a continuum from starting research from one's own experience to ethnographies where the researcher's experience is actually studies along with other participants, to confessional tales where the researcher's experience of doing the study become the focus of investigation. [p.740]

Or native ethnography?

Native ethnography […] is written by researchers from the Third and Forth Worlds who share a history of colonialism or economic subordination, including subjugation by ethnographers who have made them subject of their work. Now as bicultural insiders/outsiders, native ethnographers construct their own cultural stories […], raise serious questions about the interpretations of others who write about them, and use their dual position to problematize the distinction between observer and observed, insider and outsider […] [p.741]

Or evocative personal narrative?

In personal narrative texts, authors become "I," readers become "you," subjects become "us." Participants are encouraged to participate in a personal relationship with the author/researcher, to be treated as coresearchers, to share authority, and to author their own lives in their own voices. [p.742]

I'm working my way through with a yellow outliner and I'm pretty much relieved when academic text turns into the story and that Sylvia founds it difficult to read as well.


I glimpse at the narcissi in the sun, pour more tea and join Sylvia and Carolyn for a talk on personal narrative given by Art (who is Carolyn's husband as I'll learn a few pages later). In his talk and a heated follow-up discussion Art talks about his own path in science, discovery of personal narratives, rigour and passion.

I pause to reflect. I like what his says on evocative narratives, those that

long to be used rather than analysed; to be told and retold rather than theorised and settled; to offer lessons for further conversation rather than undebatable conclusions; and to substitute the companionship of intimate detail for the loneliness of abstracted fact. [p.744]

I couldn't avoid thinking about my own experience of blogging, conversations with self and others, joint reflection on discovered differences and taking all these as an input for my research.

The stories we write put us into conversation with ourselves as well as with our readers. In conversations with ourselves, we expose our vulnerabilities, conflicts, choices, and values. […] In conversations with our readers, we use storytelling as a method of inviting them to put themselves in our place. […] The usefulness of these stories is their capacity to inspire conversation from the point of view of the readers, who enter from the perspective of their own lives. The narrative rises or falls on its capacity to provoke readers to broaden their horizons, reflect critically on their own experience, enter empathically into worlds of experience different fro their own, and actively engage in dialogue regarding the social and moral implications of the different perspectives and standpoints encountered. [p.748]

I think of storytelling in business and power of personal voices in blogging – what Art says connects with bits of theories and practices I know and feel passionate about. I'm a bit scared anticipating methodological questions I'd be asked if I follow this approach. I'm not sure I can address them as gracefully and knowledgeable as Art does – he is a professor and I'm just in the middle of my PhD research.

At the same time I know that I'm into it anyway: I realised how much I was personally involved in my research too late to change it, I don't want to change it as I enjoy what I'm doing so much, and, at the end, I'm in it not for the sake of science, but in order to understand – for myself and others – how we can take control of our professional lives and have fun at work. In my PhD I try to complement passion with rigour, but I can't fool myself as I know what comes first. And as I look at the yellow outline in the text I know that there is at least one professor in it as well :)

I became a social scientist because I thought it was a way to address deep and troubling questions about how to live a meaningful, useful, and ethical life. Somewhere along the way these questions took a backseat to methodological rigour. Now I felt liberated to grapple with these questions again, more dialogically, through personal narrative. [p.747]


Enough tea. One advantage of working at home is snacking from the fridge, this time with first strawberries of the season. I get back to the paper, but now I'm convinced. I'm starting to gain confidence and I have million of "how to" questions, so I follow Sylvia in conversations with Carolyn and Art.

As I highlight references to check and learn about choices and methods in autoethnography, my mind comes back to the paper I'm supposed to write: I want to write my own story, story of rediscovering research through blogging.

I jump to my laptop to look through the outline of my paper – it's still what I want to say, but now I've got an idea how to say it as well. I'm going through archives of my weblog to recall experiences on the way. Moments of uncertainties and choices come back, but now I'm a bit further, a bit more confident, and I'm happy discovering lessons that come with past emotions. I'm thinking of adding some of weblog posts to the story – loved the way Carolyn and Art interlace different stories – so I'm copy-pasting between my weblog and the paper.

Adding a few weblog posts to the outline with jotted arguments makes a trick: it is 7 pages now – something that feels as an achievement. I think of printing out weblog archives to read and see if I'll get more ideas. And I think about a title for the paper – something like "I may lack rigour, but I can tell a story: reshaping research through blogging"? :)

I get back to the chapter to read Carolyn's story about Sylvia's PhD defence. It's reassuring (as always watching others finishing their PhD), but also a bit warning:

The experience gave me a lot of empathy for what students and young faculty members in other universities may have to go through to do this kind of work. [p.760]

But I'm not scared anymore (even by 7+ pages of references at the end of the chapter ;). Somehow I feel at home – finding research methodology that seems to fit my values and my way of doing research. I don't feel lonely – even while I wasn't talking to an experienced ethnographer myself I was there with Sylvia, so I feel a share of care and support she got in her PhD journey.


I finish the paper. Smile. Look at narcissi – two of them are almost ready to hatch. Urgent things at work are calling – time to get to the office, but I know I'll come back to it. Before I go back to my paper I want to write a story about this experience. And I know the title: Two papers, me in between…

In the evening, when I tell a story of the day to my boyfriend I see two yellow flowers open. I know that the rest will follow – next day, discovering that autoethnographic writing is not easy at all, more sun and watching more green sticks turning into beautiful yellow flowers to prove that everything is possible.


Narcissi in the sun


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This weblog is my learning diary. Sometimes I write about things related to my work, but the views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer.

Last update: 11/22/2006; 7:01:19 PM.