Review: The Ethnographic I

Ellis, C. (2004). The Ethnographic I: A methodological novel about autoethnography. Walnut Creek: Alta Mira Press.

I took up this book as part of my ongoing struggle to force my creative and scholarly selves to cohabit the same turf. As a novel, it lacks punch. There’s death and drama, but  no narrative arc. Ellis presents herself, the protagonist, as an accomplished, if sometimes puzzled, academic who is unreservedly devoted to her students. The character doesn’t ring true, possibly because it lacks Foucault’s “fundamental and originating contradiction.” But as an academic work the book succeeds beautifully. I found myself eagerly turning back and forth between text and notes, marking up margins and noting which references to track down next. I’m now in the process of tracking them down, and have found several gems in the process.

The narcissistic strain of autoethnography makes me squirm, even as I appreciate the presence of authors as multi-dimensional, less-than-perfect human beings. At the same time, the book offers a pointed critique of traditional social science as not just dull, but deliberately obscure. Ellis (and her husband, Art Bochner) suggest that the criteria some resaerchers cling to with such vigor serve to constrain and conceal. Researchers hide behind rituals and rules and, as a result “the literature,” as my students love to call it, is dull as bathwater.  Ellis and her colleagues suggest that judicious use of fictional devices might produce a “literature” that is evocative, informative, and effective — a promising claim worth further consideration.

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One Response to Review: The Ethnographic I

  1. Ginny Richardson says:

    As I carry out my in-depth interviews of minority dementia caregivers, new study I’ve started, this all rings so true. There is power in the words, metaphors, and literary style we use to describe our participants’ experiences, but all is so lost when it becomes reduced to percentages, models, and beta weights. gr