Autoethnography, participant observation, self-reflexivity or emphatic understanding?

Ethnography is a research method and the written result of the research. It includes multiple methods the researcher can choose from, and most highlighted by anthropologists is participant observation where the researcher actively participates in the lives of her informants. Living the life as they live, in order to grasp the understanding of experiences inside the culture, the emic point of view, if you will. However, at some point the researcher needs to distance themselves from the research situation and topic, in order to make a qualitative analysis and to reach the combination of etic and emic views. Some researchers stress the importance of self-reflexivity (see eg. Davies 1999; Fingerroos 2003; 2004) in order to justify the used methodology, theoretical backgrounds and especially the chosen field. Participant observation is sometimes also described as emphatic understanding, where the researcher positions themselves in the same situation as informants. (see eg. Gothóni)

In my thesis I first imagined myself using the above mentioned methods (or approaches), but later in research I realized I was using autoethnographical approach (see eg. Uotinen 2010), when suddenly I had to live the experience of online mourning and not emphatically imagine it as I was doing it before (with the memory of my late father). A Facebook friend passed away in 2008 and I was forced to the situation what I had studied the past couple of years and interviewing people about. I am an emphatic personality and I like to think I had already understood the gravity of emotions people go through when a friend/family member dies, and people use online environments to cope with the loss. But the level of understanding took intensely new level, when I was living itfeeling the things people had told me about. And now I have lived it ever since.

Thus the autoethnography. I took me a couple of weeks to understand to potentiality of the situation for my research (and for me as a researcher), but eventually I decided to use my own experiences as much as the experiences of my informants. It would have made myself a hypocrite to exclude my own experiences (which weren’t different, I learned later).

Currently I am writing a chapter in my thesis about my autoethnographical experiences and trying to understand the meaning of analytical distance. Since my research material is online, it is currently changing (see previous post about the disappearance of my field in Second Life). When the memorializing feature in Facebook was launched in 2009 at the time the feature hid all the status updates of the memorialized profile. There even was a group formed to campaign for changes and one of the agenda was keeping the status updates visible. Today I went to check some details about the profile I am writing about – just had written a sentence, where I felt bad of not having the opportunity to read the status updates anymore – and to my surprise, and shock, they were visible again. But I didn’t expect how I suddenly lived the emotions from 2008 all over again. The shock, the pain and the sadness. I searched some of my private messages with the name of the person and found old chat logs with that person from 2007, six months before the death. And again I understood the gravity of the online material we leave behind. The messages and words, sentences and voices, that keep echoing in the pixel space.

However, writing about the incidence felt terrible. I needed to put it on paper (or on screen for that matter) and have it in the thesis, no matter how invasive it felt to my own personal experience. I started to wonder whether my questions to my informants had felt the same? I interviewed people only online via emails, chat windows and avatars. I did not see their faces and did not learn the actual names of some people either. But now I felt them and their answers gained a new level of meaning. I knew how they felt. It wasn’t because of my empathic personality, but how I was living the same fresh pain of losing a relationship in my life.

They don’t teach about this in the ethnography classes. We might read about anthropologists “lost in the field”, when they happen to marry someone from the tribe/city/village/family they are studying. But marrying is a happy event in life. Death is something else.



Davies, Charlotte 1999, Reflexive Ethnography. A Guide to the Researching Selves and Others. London: Routledge.

Fingerroos, Outi (2003) Refleksiivinen paikantaminen kulttuurien tutkimuksessa. Elore, 2/03. (

Fingerroos, Outi (2004) Haudatut muistot. Rituaalisen kuoleman merkitykset kannaksen muistitiedossa. SKS, Helsinki.

Gothóni, René (1997) Eläytyminen ja etääntyminen kenttätutkimuksessa. In: Viljanen, Anna Maria & Lahti, Minna (toim.), Kaukaa haettua. Kirjoituksia antropologisesta kenttätyöstä, 136-148. Suomen Antropologinen Seura, Helsinki

Uotinen, Johanna (2010) Digital Television and the Machine That Goes “PING!”: Autoethnography as a Method for Cultural Studies of Technology (




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