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Combining research and storytelling: Using personal experiences as research data

I find it quite amusing that I would be writing this blog post to advocate for a research methodology as emotional and subjective as autoethnography. For over a decade, I was trained to conduct scientific research where objective answers were sought to solve problems. My research focused on examining a gene activated in athletes’ hearts to see if it could be a potential treatment for patients with heart failure. In this scientific lab-based environment, I had to ensure objectivity in my research so that I could help find a cure for heart failure. After completing my PhD, however, I ventured into humanities and social sciences and found that the research approach I had previously used would not work. In my new research space, I was interested in understanding people’s experiences, which meant embracing subjectivity.


Through my journey into qualitative research, I discovered the value of stories. As I have recently noted, I now believe that stories matter and that individual experiences should be valued. I also now advocate for researchers to allow individuals to tell their own stories, as they are the experts in their own experiences.


Researching personal experiences is becoming increasingly important as individuals’ stories are recognised as important sources of knowledge. Personal experiences can provide unique insights into social, cultural, and historical contexts and highlight the complexities of human experience. By researching personal experiences, we can uncover previously ignored or marginalised perspectives, challenge dominant narratives, and gain a deeper understanding of individual and collective identities. By valuing personal experiences as sources of knowledge, we can build more inclusive and diverse understandings of the world around us.

As I started researching personal experiences, I discovered a qualitative research method called autoethnography and soon realised its power. I now regularly recommend autoethnography to researchers. In particular, I often recommend it to PhD students to help them establish their research motivation and positionality in their thesis and more effectively engage in reflexivity during their research project. A well-written autoethnography can also be published, which helps these early career researchers by giving them the opportunity to build their publication record.


The rest of this blog post will explore autoethnography as a methodology. The information in this blog comes from my recently published book chapter, “A Harmony of Voices”. This book chapter was the methodology for our book Research and Teaching in a Pandemic World, where we used a form of autoethnography to allow PhD students, early career researchers, and more established researchers to tell the stories of their experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. Using this methodology helped us show that the pandemic significantly affected the academic identity development of students and staff in higher education.


There are five main reasons why I think autoethnography is such a powerful qualitative research methodology.


1. Autoethnography requires researchers to purposely explore personal experiences to understand a particular culture or society. For example, I was recently able to use autoethnography to delve into a doctoral student’s journey as she discovered she was mentally unwell and link this with my experiences as a doctoral educator. By valuing the student’s knowledge of her mental illness and my understanding of the doctoral education system as a cultural insider, I was able to show how the culture of academia can contribute to the academic mental health crisis. Consequently, using autoethnography helped me demonstrate how educators can create more welcoming environments that help foster doctoral students’ wellbeing.


2. Autoethnography allows researchers to use personal experiences as data sources, narrating evocative stories and interpreting their significance. Researchers are also participants in their own studies, thereby valuing insider knowledge. The stories which are told often explore transformative experiences for the researcher, frequently taking the form of epiphanies that significantly influenced the author’s worldview. I believe that this allows researchers to provide more meaningful insights into complex phenomena compared with more traditional objective research methods. For example, I recently used Zoom to have a conversation with myself as I reflected on my past experiences (see Figure 1). During this reflexive Zoom conversation, I was able to delve into my personal experiences throughout my PhD, analyse my emotions and thoughts during that period, reflect on them presently, and determine how my previous experiences have impacted my current teaching philosophy and practice.





Figure 1. Screen capture of me having a conversation with myself on Zoom to collect data about my past experiences and how these influenced my current teaching philosophy and practice.



3. Autoethnography allows the researcher to use writing as a form of therapy for themselves and society more broadly. Researchers can give others hope and insight by engaging in this form of therapeutic writing. This can be seen, for example, in our book Wellbeing in Doctoral Education. In this book, several individuals used autoethnography to tell their stories of mental illness during their doctoral journey. Through their explorations of their own journeys, they were able to provide strategies for future students to maintain their wellbeing during their PhD.


4. Autoethnography empowers researchers as it allows them to embrace emotionality and uncertainty and highlight topics that may be considered hidden or taboo. Autoethnography allows researchers to connect with their own emotions and experiences and, in doing so, find their voice. It allows them to challenge the dominant narratives that often dominate research and to tell their own stories in their own words. It also allows them to connect with their research participants more authentically and meaningfully. By sharing their own experiences, they can create a space for others to share theirs, fostering a more equitable and inclusive research process. In this way, autoethnographers can advocate for social change to address perceived societal wrongs.


5. Autoethnography is a more accessible type of research for those outside of academia because it is written from personal experience in easy-to-understand language. The autoethnographer also does not merely narrate an experience for their audience. Instead, they try to engage the audience in the conversation so that the audience can understand experiences which may be different from their own.


Autoethnography, however, is not without its challenges. Some researchers critique it as a methodology because it is not scientific enough, while others say it is not artistic enough. I believe, however, that these critiques fail to see the value of combining both science and art when exploring complex phenomena. Autoethnography has allowed me to combine my scientific understanding of the research process with the ability to tell stories – both my own stories and those of my participants. In this way, I now see research writing as a way of communicating my findings to better understand myself and change the society in which I reside.


In conclusion, autoethnography has become an increasingly popular research methodology, particularly within the humanities and social sciences. Its emphasis on personal experiences, reflexivity, and storytelling allows for a deeper exploration of complex experiences and societies. While it may be a departure from more traditional scientific research methods, autoethnography allows researchers to learn about broader cultural and societal issues by exploring their personal experiences. As a researcher who was initially trained in a scientific environment, I can attest to the value of this approach, particularly when seeking to understand individuals’ experiences. Ultimately, by embracing the methodology of autoethnography, researchers can gain a deeper appreciation for the lived experiences of the individuals they are studying, leading to more nuanced and insightful research findings.



Acknowledgements

I want to thank Dr Jennifer Cutri for introducing me to autoethnography as a research methodology. I would also like to acknowledge Open AI, which I used to generate the initial structure of this blog post.

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