Methodology: The Case for Autoethnography

Methodology: The Case for Autoethnography

PRISMA adaptation of ‘Dasha in the mirror’

Autoethnography is a qualitative research method in which the researcher analyzes his/her own personal experience in order to interpret wider cultural, political, and social phenomena.  Carolyn Ellis (2009), a prominent autoethnogapher, describes herself as “both the author and focus of the story, the one who tells and the one who experiences, the observer and the observed…thinking and observing as an ethnographer and writing and describing as a storyteller” (p.13).  Tony Adams (2011), defines autoethnography as a way of saying “something about cultural experience and/or motivat[ing] cultural change” (as cited in Boylorn, 2014, p.316).  Adams, Jones and Ellis (2015) have argued that good autoethnography means “making our research accessible to a variety of readers and viewing our work as an opportunity to engage and improve the lives of ourselves, participants and readers,” (p.104).

This critical authoethnography will analyze colonialism both within myself, as well as my classroom.  The focus will be on me in my dual roles as both a White settler educator as well as a parent to Indigenous and non-Indigenous children.  I will examine and reflect on the way colonialism inhabits my actions and my relationships with students, staff and family members.  As I practice ways to make visible and to problematize systems of oppression, I am both the narrator and the analyst in this research. Using the frameworks of Critical Race and Anti-Colonial theories I will examine moments of tension and synergy, of significant failure and success.  The aim of this work is to present an accessible, teacher/classroom-based look at the practical implications of working towards reconciliation through the troubling of colonialism. This research aims to provoke critical reflection in myself as well as the intended primary audience of fellow settler teachers, to begin a dialogue that promotes reconcili-ACTION (1).

“Universities come to know about things through studies, organizations come to know about things through reports, and people come to know about things through stories” – Richard Axelrod

Illustration: Oxford Dictionaries

This dialogue is best summoned through story.  Richard Axelrod (2002) proposes that  “universities come to know about things through studies, organizations come to know about things through reports, and people come to know about things through stories…Storytelling is an ancient form of passing wisdom, the most ancient form of knowing” (as cited in DuFour, DuFour, Eaker & Karhanek, p.112).  In the era of Brexit and the Trump presidency, the power of story is all the more indisputable.  We don’t care about facts.  We don’t trust facts.  Instead, we look for compelling narratives to guide us.  Oxford Dictionaries has declared the Word of the Year for 2016 to be “post-truth” which they define as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief” (Flood, 2016).  Now more than ever, it is stories that matter.

“We see reality in ways that are determined by our imagination” (Chamberlin, p. 135).

When Camille Joseph, once chief of the Kootenai band, explained how he learned how to hunt, he spoke about meeting his first bear in a story.  He first learned how to hunt not from going out in the woods but from listening to his father, over and over again. His “imagination was educated in the realities of hunting before he ever walked up the trail” (Chamberlin, 2004, p.134).  We cannot hunt a bear without first coming to know the bear and also the hunt, through story.  We first begin to learn strategies that later lead to action, through story.  “We see reality in ways that are determined by our imagination” (Chamberlin, p. 135).  If today’s world is not the world we want, if we want justice and freedom and peace, if we want decolonization, we must train our imaginations first.  We do this through story.

An autoethnography is ultimately about story, about truth-telling in a post-truth world.

PRISMA adaptation of ‘Invisible Woman’

An autoethnography is ultimately about story, about truth-telling in a post-truth world.  Dakota scholar, Waziyatawin (2008), has written about the Dakota people and about how they have been much more likely to engage in truth-telling surrounding the past.  She argues that “there is a much more pressing need for Whites to engage in their own truth-telling” (as quoted in Regan, p.64).  But we Whites don’t much care for truth-telling, especially not in a way that exposes us.  We’d rather put the focus somewhere else.  Ferguson (1990) explains this phenomenon by pointing out that “the place from which power is exercised is often a hidden place.  When we try to pin it down, the centre always seems to be somewhere else” (as cited in Graham & Slee, 2008,  p. 284).  Cappello (2015) explains the invisibility of Whiteness by stating that “the first rule of White Club, is that there is no White Club” (lecture, July 8, 2015).  By normalizing and centering the White settler experience, we have rendered it invisible.  We have “construct[ed] a universalised space free from interrogation, a ghostly centre which eludes critical analysis and thus recognition of the power relations embodied within notions of normalcy” (Graham & Slee, 2008, p.287).  In this context, this autoethnography is an attempt to pin down this ghostly centre, to elicit interrogation and critical analysis, to take up Waziyatawin’s invitation to do some White truth-telling.

How do we solve the settler problem?

PRISMA adaptation of ‘British colonialist in a litter,
carried by local men

In contrast to White truth-telling, Canadians as a whole would rather put our efforts somewhere else, preferably on our “misguided, obsessive, and mythical quest to assuage colonizer guilt by solving the Indian problem” (Regan, p.11). One of the ways of attempting to ‘solve the Indian problem’ is through studies and social sciences research with the result that now ‘research’ has become a “dirty word” in many Indigenous communities (Tuck, 2014; Tuhiwai Smith, 1999). The social sciences have often collected and commodified stories of Indigenous pain and humiliation as spectacles for the settler colonial gaze.  Such research has been concerned with documenting damage, of “empirically substantiating the oppression” of Indigenous communities, which has resulted in these communities being left with a “narrative that tells them that they are broken” (Tuck, p.227) and with recirculated “tropes of dysfunction, abuse, and neglect” (Tuck, p.229).  This then supports the “master narrative that colonization was inevitable and has a monopoly on the future” (Tuck, p.243).  Tuck argues that research is complicit with power, as the right to conquer is “intimately connected to the right to know” (Tuck, p.224).  Tuck calls for Indigenous peoples to refuse research as a way of shifting the gaze from the violated body to the violating instruments.  Regan too argues for a shift in gaze, arguing that it is time that we “turn the mirror back upon ourselves…and answer the provocative question…: How do we solve the settler problem?” (Regan, p.11).

Writing is not an “innocent act” (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005, x)

PRISMA adaptation of ‘Qu’Appelle Industrial School in 1885.  Parents camped outside the gate in order to visit their children.’

This research attempts to study and to begin to solve the Settler problem, to look at the violating instruments of schools and teachers, in a way that attends to the burden of history, that bears witness to the ways that both past and present colonialism have done and continue to do harm, and that links knowledge to action.  This research method rejects the idea of a universal, objective truth and recognizes that all inquiry is moral and political, that writing is not an “innocent act” (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005, x). As a methodology, autoethnography explicitly “acknowledges and accommodates subjectivity, emotionality, and the researcher’s influence on research, rather than hiding from these matters or assuming they don’t exist” (Ellis, Adams, & Bochner, 2011, History of Autoethnography section, par. 3).  This type of approach is imperative because solving ‘the Settler problem’ cannot be accomplished at an objective distance. It requires “vulnerability, humility, and a willingness to stay in the decolonizing struggle of our own discomfort,” (Regan, p.13).

My research will be presented in a series of critical, self-reflective narratives, each looking at a different aspect of the Settler problem and possible solutions from my perspective as a teacher and mother.  Moments will be interrogated which attend to the following dimensions of colonialism: those that confront colonial mentality and violence, those that combat moral indifference and apathy which manifests in a lack of relationship, and those that address historical ignorance and settler denial.  These vignettes will be written in 26 sections, one for each letter of the alphabet.  This format supports the accessibility of this work for classroom teachers. The idea of organizing this critical autoethnography into small pieces, in no hierarchical or chronological order, simply as moments of significant learning, allows the work to be broken up into manageable/tweetable chunks rather than cobbled together into an unwieldly narrative.

PRISMA adaptation of ‘Blog reader’

Each section will appear as a post on my blog.  It will then be disseminated through social media.  This is a key component of this research process.  For an autoethnography to be deemed valid, it must resonate with readers, giving readers a sense that the experiences described are believable and that the story, and insight therein, is useful. “Readers provide validation by comparing their lives to ours, by thinking about how our lives are similar and different and the reasons why, and by feeling that the stories have informed them about unfamiliar people or lives” (Ellis, Adams, & Bochner, 2011, History of Autoethnography section, par. 35).  Generalizability is also important.  This is tested by readers as they determine whether a story speaks to them about their own experience and the experiences of others they know.  Having fellow teachers read these narratives and react to and critique them is an important part of the autoethnographic approach and will be facilitated through social media.

“It is precisely because education was the primary tool of oppression of Aboriginal people, and miseducation of all Canadians, that we have concluded that education holds the key to reconciliation”- Justice Murray Sinclair

PRISMA adaptation of ‘Will Truth bring Reconciliation?’

Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) has argued that “it is precisely because education was the primary tool of oppression of Aboriginal people, and miseducation of all Canadians, that we have concluded that education holds the key to reconciliation” (2014, p.7).  As the gate-keepers to formal education, teachers then, must take hold of this key; we must own reconciliation as both an ethical and professional responsibility.  We must agree that this is one of our primary responsibilities.  The TRC (2015) has defined ‘reconciliation’ as being about “coming to terms with events of the past in a manner that overcomes conflict and establishes a respectful and healthy relationship among people, going forward” (p. 6).  We cannot come to terms with the past until we can see the past and how it operates in and informs the present.  There can be no true reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples as long as our relationships continue to be inhabited by colonial mentalities.  Seeing this reality and the way it is perpetuated in classrooms, is a first step towards reconciliACTION.

(1) “ReconciliACTION” is a term coined by Cree Indigenous advocate, Stan Wesley to indicate the ‘action’ necessary for reconciliation to take place.


Adams, T., Jones, S., & Ellis, C. (2015). Autoethnography: Understanding Qualitative Research. New York, USA: Oxford University Press.

Boylorn, R. (2014). From Here to There: How to Use Auto/ethnography to Bridge Difference. International Review of Qualitative Research, 7(3), 312-326. Retrieved from .

Chamberlin, J. E. (2004). If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories?: Finding Common Ground Toronto, Canada:Vintage Canada.

Denzin, N., & Lincoln, Y. (2005). The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research, Third Edition. Thousand Oaks, USA: Sage Publishing.

Dufour, R., DuFour, R., Eaker, R., & Karhanek, G. (2010). Raising the Bar and Closing the Gap: Whatever It Takes. Bloomington, USA: Solution Tree Press.

Ellis, C. (2009). Revision: Autoethnographic reflections on life and work. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Ellis, C., Adams, T., & Bochner, A. (2011).  Autoethnography: An Overview, Forum: Qualitative Social Research. 12(1).Retrieved from

Flood, A. (2016, November 15). ‘Post-truth’ named word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries. The Guardian. Retrieved from

Sinclair, M. (2014). Education: Cause and solution. The Manitoba Teacher, 93(3), 6–10.  Retrieved from:

Regan, P. (2010). Unsettling the Settler Within: Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling, and Reconciliation in Canada. Vancouver, Canada: UBC Press.

Graham, L. J., & Slee, R. (2008). An Illusory Interiority: Interrogating the discourse/s of inclusion. Educational Philosophy and Theory. 40(2), p.277-293.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2015). Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Retrieved from

Tuck, E., & Yang, K. (2014). R-Words: Refusing Research. In D. Paris & M. Winn (Eds), Humanizing Research: Decolonizing Qualitative Inquiry with Youth and Communities (223-247). Madison, USA:  Sage Publishing.

Tuhiwai Smith, L. (2012). Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London: Zed Books.