Investigating the self: autoethnography and identity work

Austin, Jon (2005) Investigating the self: autoethnography and identity work. In: Culture and identity, 2nd ed. Pearson Education Australia, Frenchs Forest, Australia, pp. 17-30. ISBN 9780733973291


in trying to unravel and chart the paths taken, consciously and not-so-consciously, in the continual process of our Becoming- that is, in undertaking the identity work that would seem to be so vital in the contemporary era - it is useful to look at the possibilities resident within new forms of inquiry.
With a concern to make visible previously unmarked relationships of power and dominance, with an
embrace of forms of evidence or 'data' heretofore overlooked or outrightly rejected and derided by
more established research approaches, some of these new forms of (critical) research offer the precise
vehicle for the journey into that most difficult of all research sites: the Self.

This chapter focuses on autoethnography - something of a cross between autobiography and critical
psychoanalysis - as one particularly promising approach to this task. Traditional, theoretical ethnographers are quick to dismiss autoethnography as a self-indulgent, narcissistic 'diary disease' (Geertz, 1988), or excessively subjective, shallow 'textual reflexivity' (Bourdieu & Waquant, 1992), but it is useful to draw upon the work of critical anthropologists whose embrace of the possibilities resident within postcolonial and poststructural developments in their 'discipline' (if that is still an appropriate descriptive term) has opened up powerful modes and techniques of exploring that most
intimate and hidden of anthropological curiosities.
Coming to understand Self is a relational exercise, whereby subjectivities intersect, impact, and rebound in pinball-type ricochets. While there are a number of different perspectives - theoretical and ideological - on the question of how identities form, autoethnographic analysis is congruent with the idea of identity formation as one of progressive repositionings of the Self along a myriad of lines or axes of identity. Each axis is bookended - although not necessarily terminally - by a pair of oppositional points (binary opposites, such as male - female) and by something akin to a form of constant-comparison method, the individual comes to believe and, more importantly, live his or her subjectivity along each of the axes. Some of these axes are more readily accessed than others, for
many reasons, and the process of self-positioning remains in constant motion.

Connecting the present to multiple possible pasts (and the opening up of the possibility of such multiple histories is one of implications of adopting a postmodern view of biography) is an active element in the performance or living out of our subjectivities, and through this self-defining activity the individual is required to engage questions of Self and Other. This is the poststructuralist response to Foucault's position that modernity 'does not liberate man in his own being; it compels him to Jace
the task of producing himself' (Foucault, 1991 p34).

Stories form part of the way in which sense might be made of a seemingly senseless world, and the narrative form allows for the scripting and rehearsal of various fictions of individual and collective subjectivities. Bridget Byrne highlights this feature of contemporary storytelling:

The interest in narratives and the narration of identity signifies a move away from the search for essential, universal or even rational identities and a stress
on the more uncertain and creative processes of construction and fabrication (Byrne, 2003 p 32)

In putting together the plot lines, the action sequences, the character portraits and all of the other
forms and elements that go to making up any narrative or story of interest and quality, the role of the
author is crucial. So, too, in the case of the narrative or story of the Self: this is where the genre of
autobiography takes us. Autobiographical writing tells that story of Self with an authoritative voice,
that of the Subject of the story. But this is where the limits of autobiographical story telling and the
need for deep and critical analysis or understanding of the various processes of becoming the Self butt
up against each other. It must be reiterated: autobiography, while part of the autoethnographic
process, is not the equivalent of autoethnography. One tells a story, the other draws out lessons,
insights and understandings about and for the Subject of that story. One is largely descriptive, the
other largely analytical! One tells, the other enlightens. One is autobiography, the other is autoethnography.

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Item Type: Book Chapter (Commonwealth Reporting Category B)
Refereed: Yes
Item Status: Live Archive
Additional Information: Files associated with this item cannot be displayed due to copyright restrictions.
Faculty/School / Institute/Centre: Historic - Faculty of Education (Up to 30 Jun 2013)
Faculty/School / Institute/Centre: Historic - Faculty of Education (Up to 30 Jun 2013)
Date Deposited: 09 Oct 2008 01:32
Last Modified: 30 Nov 2022 07:09
Uncontrolled Keywords: identity work; autoethnography
Fields of Research (2008): 13 Education > 1301 Education Systems > 130199 Education systems not elsewhere classified
16 Studies in Human Society > 1608 Sociology > 160809 Sociology of Education
20 Language, Communication and Culture > 2002 Cultural Studies > 200204 Cultural Theory
Fields of Research (2020): 39 EDUCATION > 3903 Education systems > 390399 Education systems not elsewhere classified
39 EDUCATION > 3902 Education policy, sociology and philosophy > 390203 Sociology of education
47 LANGUAGE, COMMUNICATION AND CULTURE > 4702 Cultural studies > 470207 Cultural theory

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