Auto-Ethnographies, Introduction: Auto-Ethnographies of Academic Practices

Meneley, Anne, and, Young, J. Donna. (2005). “Introduction: Auto-Ethnographies of Academic Practices.” In Anne Meneley and Donna J. Young (Eds.), Auto-Ethnographies: The Anthropology of Academic Practices (1-21). Toronto, Ontario: Broadview Press.

The introduction to this book approaches the concept of auto-ethnographies objectively in a way that the domain of its practice takes place within North American academic institutions. The text starts with an overview of the external policies which affect ‘academic practices’. It ends with speculations on how to rethink auto-ethnography from the practice perspective despite the constraints and the challenges encountered by the anthropologist. Accordingly, the introduction focuses initially on a conspicuous hierarchical structure within the discipline of anthropology in order to rethink the possible effects of such a condition on the conscious self of the anthropologist at a later stage. The possible outcomes of such a process are likely to affect the production of cultural knowledge in a world characterized by unequal power relations.

The contentions conveyed in the introduction to this volume aim at exploring the usefulness of studying anthropological ‘academic practices’ from within. The adopted vision of such an auto-ethnography touches upon three areas of thoughts. Primary importance was accorded to the first one which accounts for the intrinsically linked zones of practicing anthropology and meditating on the nature of such a practice through the medium of writing ethnographically. The second one examines anthropological practices from the perspective of the practitioner. The latter might be conditioned by the prevalent misconceptions on the essence of the practiced occupation itself. Finally, the last conclusive section of the introduction culminates into an invitation to join the sensitive to the sensible in exploring new grounds of an ethical, and perhaps a revolutionary, strand of academic practice. It is worth noting that the first area for consideration vacillates between the historically un-familiar, the engagingly reflexive, the materially lived, which can be changed, and the supposedly elitist orchestrating politics of inclusion and/or exclusion.

The practice of auto-ethnography aims at producing a written text. The latter, like any other form of literature, is affected by the methodological intentions of, or the imposed constraints on, the fieldworker. Hence, in this volume, four written genres emanate from the ‘ethnographically grounded’ style of performing auto-ethnography. Opting for the familiarity of home to gain more in-depth insights on the subject matter under investigation cannot be a smooth process as one might think. The practice of doing research at home is exemplified historically by illustrating the challenges encountered by the native fieldworker in the field and the effects of his nativity on being successful or accepted in the world of Academia. This genre of ethnographic writing is accused of lacking theoretical emphasis which invites subsequent reflexivity on the overlapping relationships between the investigator and the other in general no matter what ascribed role is positioned in the process of practicing. The other can be a nebulous living structure, a textual mediation or even a self that introspects dialogically with its own self. In addition, the reflexive genre navigates the effects of producing an anthropological knowledge that is condemned to be shaped by the hegemonic conditions of the market place and the orchestrated notions of meritocracy. Intellectual productivity is conditioned by the presence or absence of a suitable environment for growing. That is how the material world of political economy intervenes in shaping a (dis)-enchanted intellectual existence. Finally the retrospective genre in ethnographic writing conveys a glimpse of the internal ‘habitat’ of anthropologists in academia. Articulating the specificities of what happens at the backstage accounts for a will to better explicate the crucial issues at stake in contemporary anthropology. Hopefully such a tendency  might open other windows paving the way to rethink and re -project the essence of anthropology as a discipline from an auto-ethnographic perspective.

It is worth noting that the introduction to this volume aims to explicate the general scope of the subsequent chapters in the volume as well as the rationale behind indulging into such a project. The stylistic straightforwardness of the language in the text appears to hide an in-depth analytical thinking regarding the investigated subject matter alongside a panoramic overview on the overlapping issues stemming from a will to deconstruct ‘academic practices’. It is an invitation to reconsider the humane values of acting responsibly and ethically in an era marked by utilitarian self-interest, hegemonic consumerism and uncertain expectations shaping human existence. Although little attention was paid to introducing the nature of the ‘grounded ethnographies’ conveyed in the subsequent chapters of the book written by other writers, as a reader I enjoyed the ‘heartfelt’ sincerity in committing to unveil methodologically ‘the structures of feeling’  affecting academic practices from an auto-ethnographic perspective.

I think that this text is pregnant with structural hints regarding the ways of dealing with its subject matter. This is supposed to pave the way to new horizons dedicated to experiencing, practicing and enjoying the processes of auto-investigating academia from the ethnographic angle. It might be revolutionary. However, determination to erect such an original trend of thought in anthropology can be undermined by scrutinizing mere historical facts that occurred within certain power related circumstances in academia. I allude to both of the examples conveyed regarding the trajectories of both of the texts ‘the hobo’ as well as ‘Mules and Men’ . The residue of an unequal relations within academia can still affect contemporary practices that are likely to breed hasty judgments regarding the world of producing knowledge.  Accordingly the inclusion of  expressions such as ‘destructively postmodern’ or ‘authoritarian structure’ in the introduction connotes at least an indifference to postmodernism as a trend or a paradigm of thought. I think that postmodern approaches to the subject matter of the book will be simply enriching rather than destructive. Post structuralism on the other hand might add more flavor and fluidity to the rigidness of a structure that is claimed to be oppressive. Besides, a structure with a power to convey more privileges to the elite and less rights to the underprivileged cannot guarantee a permanent existence for itself. Despite the fact that the hobo researcher experienced academic exclusion back in the depression years, and that the supposed being ‘subaltern’ intellectuals are emerging or constituting a community due to the same hierarchical structures today or in the recent past could never stand as an absolute generalized truth which condemns the academic to dwell in a critical condition. To reflect on such unequal power relations and to meditate on the human condition of the subdued requires much more than methodical agency organized in the name of unity, or even dialogic and humane feelings of compassion towards the self and the other. It requires simply belief in the absolute freedom to carry on thinking ethnographically about academic practices from multiple inter-subjective approaches rather than objective or structurally material ones. I enjoyed reading the introduction to this book. It conveys the pleasurable feeling to read the following chapters or ‘grounded ethnographies’.


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