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Autoethnography: subjectivity and experimental strategy in the social sciences



This article is the result of a search for rendering the sociological re ection and imagination meandering the artists’ book de mentaliteit is van plastiek. In itself, the book consists of an in- depth visual and conceptual exploration of the mysterious statement “The mentality is plastic!” During the process of making the book, the author turned to autoethnography in order to include both process and product in the nal representation of the project as a whole. As an upcoming qualitative research method, autoethnography allows researchers to write in a highly personalized style, drawing on his or her experience to extend understanding about a societal phenomenon. The intent of autoethnography is to acknowledge the inextricable link between the personal and the cultural and to make room for nontraditional forms of inquiry and expression. The rst part of this article presents a broad introduction to the social sciences and builds up to a contextualization and discussion of autoethnography’s status as a social scienti c method. The second part consists of a subjective narration of the project de menta- liteit is van plastiek and discusses the relevancy of auotethnography therefor. This narration then gets linked to autoethnography’s argument for revealing and interrogating the process of research. In conclusion this article argues for autoethnography as a useful method for inquiring the subjective experience of the artistic process for artists themselves, and for the sociology of art in general.
de mentaliteit is van plastiek
subjectivity and experimental strategy in the social sciences
Jakob Van den Broucke
This article is the result of a search for rendering the sociological reection and imagination
meandering the artists’ book de mentaliteit is van plastiek. In itself, the book consists of an in-
depth visual and conceptual exploration of the mysterious statement The mentality is plastic!
During the process of making the book, the author turned to autoethnography in order to
include both process and product in the nal representation of the project as a whole. As
an upcoming qualitative research method, autoethnography allows researchers to write in a
highly personalized style, drawing on his or her experience to extend understanding about a
societal phenomenon. The intent of autoethnography is to acknowledge the inextricable link
between the personal and the cultural and to make room for nontraditional forms of inquiry
and expression. The rst part of this article presents a broad introduction to the social sciences
and builds up to a contextualization and discussion of autoethnography’s status as a social
scientic method. The second part consists of a subjective narration of the project de menta-
liteit is van plastiek and discusses the relevancy of auotethnography therefor. This narration
then gets linked to autoethnography’s argument for revealing and interrogating the process of
research. In conclusion this article argues for autoethnography as a useful method for inquiring
the subjective experience of the artistic process for artists themselves, and for the sociology of
art in general.
autoethnography, subjectivity, experimental strategy, artistic representation,
process-product, photography, sociology of art, post-artistic reection
Author’s note
A special thank you to Florian Vanlee, Mathijs De Baere,
Julia Peters and Zoë De Bock for proofreading the article.
1. Introduction
Towards the end of 2017, I embarked on a project without a particular end or calculated goal
in mind. Intrigued by the phrase the mentality is plastic - conded in me by a complete
stranger during a hazy night out - these simple but enigmatic words became the starting point
for a visual and conceptual investigation which is now bundled in a self-published book: de
mentaliteit is van plastiek. Initially I used the phrase as a guiding principle to make a thematic
selection of my photographic archive, but I quickly began supplementing existing work with
new images. When these photographs later gradually started relating to quotes, strands of texts
and social observations, what began as an artistic exercise slowly developed into an in-depth
and structured exploration of the mysterious statement. As a result, words and images now
interlinked in a perpetual ux, offering endless takes on the elusive concept while never fully
conceding to either the word or the image.
While working on the book, my artistic process became subject to scientic self-reection.
Questioning and exploring my role as a creator producing a cultural artefact, my formal train-
ing as a social scientist offered a framework to disentangle the constitutive elements to what
I was doing. By learning about autoethnography I then decided to add another layer to the
project in the form of the scientic paper at hand. Autoethnography is a critical and reexive
method of inquiry wherein the personal is used to investigate the social, hence opening up a
space for experimental forms of inquiry and representation. Through colliding academic writ-
ing with valuing immediate experience and spontaneous evaluation, the autoethnographic di-
mension of my work slowly established itself as an important part of the project. Relating these
conicting dispositions to contemporary methodological discussions in autoethnography, this
article aims to establish an explicit link between the process and product of de mentaliteit
is van plastiek, and the scientic practice wherein I was formally trained. Highlighting the
continuities and discontinuities between artistic and traditional research in the social sciences,
the article further aspires to offer an interdisciplinary contribution to the theoretical and epis-
temological underpinnings of autoethnography. Further, the article accentuates the relevancy
of autoethnography for gaining insight into the artistic process, both for artists themselves as
for the sociology of art. While certainly complementary to the book itself, the essay does not
provide any answers to the questions raised, nor does it explain any hidden truths in the work.
Rather, this scientic appendix adds to and stresses the particularly sociological reection and
imagination meandering the artistic project itself.
In general the article consists of two big parts. In the rst part the article adresses autoeth-
nography as a research method, and in the second part the article turns towards an application
of autoethnography to the process of making the artists’ book de mentaliteit is van plastiek.
In order to provide the reader with adequate background information, the article begins with
a general introduction to social sciences and the methodological continuum. Thereafter, au-
toethnography is introduced and contextualized within the framework of postmodernism and
the ‘crisis of representation’. After discussing the epistemological and theoretical underpin-
nings of autoethnography, the article goes on to entangle the varied eld of autoethnographic
research practices through the binary lens of evocative and analytic approaches. Then, some
conclusions are drawn considering the state of understanding regarding autoethnography as
a research method. Finally, attention gets turned to de mentaliteit is van plastiek through a
subjective narration of the book from process to product. Thus, concluding in a consideration
of the relevance of autoethnography for the project as a whole, and for the inquiry of the sub-
jective experience of artistic processes and practices in general.
2. Some general traits of social scientic research
The social sciences aim to examine society by researching the behavior of and relationships
among individuals within society, and the cultural development of society in general. To pro-
duce valid and reliable knowledge of society, social scientic research combines theory and
empiricism whilst rigorously applying methodological principles (Roose, & Meuleman, 2017).
As an academic tradition, social science covers a broad range of disciplines ranging from an-
thropology, economy, to psychology and communication studies. However, within the scope
of this article the focus is especially on the eld of sociology. Being the original “science
of society”, sociology focusses on the systematic study of society and social interaction. In
particular the political, cultural, religious and economical aspects of human societies and its
organization, change and social problems take center stage in its inquiries.
In general ‘theory’ refers to a whole of coherent claims or propositions which describes or
accounts for certain phenomena. Social scientic theories can be understood as stories about
how social reality functions, and assist in uncovering recurring patterns and regularities in
the world around us (Roose, & Meuleman, 2017). Symbolic interactionism for instance, an
example of a major theoretical framework in sociological theory, approaches society from a
small scale perspective by focusing on the interactions between individuals to explain social
organization and change. It is premised on three central ideas: 1. action depends on meaning,
2. people assign meaning to material and ideal concepts based on their social interactions, 3.
this meaning is a product of interpretation and therefore not permanent but subject to change
(Bracke, et al., 2011). Applied to the example of teenage smoking, for instance, symbolic in-
teractionists will consider the meanings teenagers ascribe to smoking, the messages given to
teens by the media, what they learn from peers and family, and how they construct their ‘real-
ity’ through interactions when it comes to smoking. So, symbolic interactionism views society
as a dynamic whole consisting of social objects (people and things), constantly involved in
interaction processes. It views people as imbued with agency, as actively engaged in shaping
the social world rather than passively enduring it. Society, then, is constituted in and by these
processes of ascribing meaning.
Symbolic interactionism is only one theory existing among many different, and often con-
icting theoretical frameworks. For a social theory to be considered legitimate, Roose and
Meuleman (2017), for instance, propose three main characteristics. First, social theory must
be composed of a logical and coherent whole of claims about relations among concepts
(Strauss, & Corbin, 1994, p. 278). ‘Concepts’ are general or abstract ideas used as labels to
categorize concrete observable phenomena, and function as the central building blocks to the-
ory. The central concepts in symbolic interactionism are the self, symbols, meaning and inter-
action. ‘Symbols’ are culturally derived social objects with shared meanings that are created
and maintained through social interaction. Applying these concepts to the example of teenage
smoking offers the following schematic representation of the concepts: the self refers to the
smokers in question, the symbol is the act of smoking cigarettes, the ascribed meaning could
be that smoking is understood to be cool and interaction can refer to the smoker adopting this
particular meaning by socializing with his friends. So, due to the logical relation between these
concepts symbolic interactionism succeeds in explaining teenage smoking.
Second, theory must allow for a certain degree of generalization. A theory is always more
than a description of one phenomenon occurring within a specic time and place. Though the
components to symbolic interactionism were claried by applying them to teenage smoking,
their applicability to a diverse number of social phenomena is evident.
Third, the construction of social theory must retain an inseparable relation to lived social re-
ality, and this should be a guiding tenet in formulating questions. Do teenagers smoke because
of interaction processes as symbolic interactionism assumes? And, is there empirical data to
substantiate this claim? The relation to lived social reality is assessed through empiricism, or
the experience of the world around us through observation (Roose, & Meuleman, 2017). Then,
to investigate society and formulate theory, social scientists observe reality through empirical
data; facts, things one can observe, touch and experience. One could argue that if theory is
what researchers untangle sitting behind their desks, empirical data is what researchers ob-
serve and collect in reality out there, in society.
3. Quantitative versus qualitative methods
The crucial challenges for social scientic research in empirical data collection is the objec-
tivity of observation and the reexivity exercised concerning this objectivity of observation.
Since our perception is inuenced by a variety of mental processes and external inuences, us
humans are obstructed to acquire an objective perception of reality. For instance, when two
people observe the same phenomenon, their perception and interpretation might differ signi-
cantly. As science – to an extent – aspires to objectivity, the question of how to conceive objec-
tive information of society is a matter of methodology. This notion of critically reecting on
how to collect data translates into a range of different methods, each addressing the question
of objectivity in particular ways.
That objectivity poses a challenge to social sciences research is clearly manifested in the
broad dichotomy between quantitative and qualitative research methodologies. This distinc-
tion is fostered by particular perspectives on empirical observations and the use of data-anal-
ysis techniques. Simply put, quantitative methods resemble methods of the natural sciences:
they rely on numerical data and operationalize theoretical concepts by giving them a numeri-
cal score. Such data is gathered by experimental research designs, close-ended questionnaires
or by analyzing secondary data. Quantitative methods emphasize objective measurements and
statistical, mathematical, or numerical data-analysis. By using standardized procedures, they
aim to reduce subjectivity and enable a scientic engagement with large datasets.
Qualitative methods on the other hand focus on the meanings and interpretations which
are inherent in social reality (Bracke, et al., 2011). The varying range of qualitative methods
are typically characterized by their focus on discursive, less tangible data, and mostly use
open-ended questionnaires. But also eld notes, photographic images, archival documents and
lm fragments are often mobilized as data. Whereas in quantitative methodology the aim is to
render the process of interpretation as objective - replicable - as possible, qualitative methods
emphasize its inherent interpretive character. Thus, asserting the conviction that the concepts
and language researchers bring to their research shape their perception of the social world un-
der investigation. As qualitative researchers usually limit themselves to a smaller range of data,
focusing on fewer cases, they aim for a thorough understanding of a particular phenomenon
with a focus on meaning.
This methodological distinction is generally understood as emerging from two fundamen-
tally different worldviews. Both methods have different assumptions of what constitutes social
reality and how it should be researched. Originally, quantitative methods are premised on the
belief of an objective reality constituted by relatively simple cause and effect processes; these
are presumed to allow themselves to be understood in an objective manner. This assumption
is closely aligned with a positivist viewpoint characterized by essentialist claims to objectivity
and neutrality. In answering research questions, quantitative research strategies approach so-
cial phenomena from the perspective that they can be measured and/or quantied. It proclaims
to measure is to know, a dominant disposition in the natural sciences. By adopting “positiv-
istic” techniques, social scientists’ role is to explain/describe, predict and control phenomena
in order to uncover the laws that govern societies (Ahmad, et al., 2015).
From a qualitative perspective, there is no such thing as objective reality. There are only in-
dividuals who constantly construct multiple realities through and by their actions (Roose, &
Meuleman, 2017). The underlying assumption of qualitative research therefore is that reality
and truth are constructed and shaped through the interaction between people and their lived
environment (Silverman, 2000). By studying things in their self evident context qualitative re-
searchers attempt to make sense of, or to interpret things, phenomena in terms of the meaning
people bring to them (Denzin, & Lincoln, 2000). The qualitative viewpoint is aligned to con-
structionism, a theory of knowledge premised on the conviction that meaning is not inherent
but constructed. The central concerns of constructionist inquiry are to examine what people
‘know’ and how they create, apply, and act upon these ideas (Harris, 2006). Constructionism
then postulates that human beings rationalize their experience by creating models of the social
world and share and reify these models through language. To symbolic interactionism, “mean-
ing” is a crucial concept and its central role necessitates a qualitative research design. Through
language and communication, symbols provide the means by which reality is constructed. The
empirical data to symbolic interactionist research therefore is to be found in forms of language
expression. By conducting in-depth interviews, for instance, a researcher would be able to
gather data to clarify why teenagers smoke.
Both quantitative and qualitative methods have their advantages and disadvantages. By
analyzing representative data sets and using standardized procedures, quantitative research
succeeds in generating valid and generalizable conclusions. Qualitative research allows for
a more thorough and nuanced image of human actions in their self evident context, recog-
nizing the importance of the complexity of meaning of a situation. Which methodology is
better suited for a certain research setting therefore depends on the particular question under
investigation. However, when engaged in research practice, the distinction between these two
methodological paradigms is less clear cut. Many intermediate positions exist, and data trian-
gulation, or the combination of techniques, is common practice. In addition, it must be noted
that this dichotomy needs to be understood as ideal-typical, as a way to simplify the continu-
um of research methodologies. It proofs to be more productive to understand quantitative and
qualitative methods as existing along a continuum where scientic positivists anchor one end
and artistic interpretivists hold down the other. In between is a vast and varied middle ground
wherein most researchers locate themselves (Ellis, & Ellingson; 2008). Through time, both
traditions also inuenced each other and nowadays the research community - both quantitative
and qualitative - is relatively comfortable with the concept of reexivity, or the idea that the
researcher is an integral part of the research and inuences its outcome. Nonetheless, it must be
noted that the choice of methodology is never neutral and often implies a well-dened world-
view, vacillating between the positivistic and the constructivist view.
4. Autoethnography
One upcoming qualitative research method, emerged from and aligned to symbolic interaction-
ism, is autoethnography. Broadly speaking, autoethnography refers to a way of doing research
wherein the personal is used to investigate the social. As such, autoethnography is grounded
in postmodern philosophy and is linked to growing debate about reexivity and voice in social
research. In the following paragraphs, autoethnography is rstly introduced by discussing its
roots in postmodernism and the ‘crisis of representation’. While discussing the epistemological
and theoretical framework of autoethnography special attention is given to its use of subjec-
tivity and experimental strategies. Consequently the argumentation builds up to approaching
autoethnography as a social constructionist project which rejects persistent dichotomies in
scientic discourse (researcher-researched, objectivity-subjectivity, process-product, self-oth-
ers, art-science and personal-political). Then, the varied eld of autoethnographic research
practices gets entangled from the binary lens of evocative and analytic autoethnography. This
lens serves as a starting point for assessing two examples of autoethnographic research which
are then used to demonstrate the most important characteristics and arguments for autoethnog-
raphy. To conclude this theoretical section there is a discussion of the most notable critiques
on autoethnography, the criteria for evaluation, and a reection on the state of understanding
regarding autoethnography as a research method.
4.1 Postmodernism and the ‘crisis of representation’
Autoethnography, as the term suggests, is closely related to ethnography, the academic disci-
pline concerned with the systematic study of people and cultures. This, in turn, is historically
associated with anthropological explorations of cultural practices that formally developed in
the beginning of the twentieth century. These early explorations focused on faraway cultures
which were conceived as whole systems whereby individual and personal experience was
subsumed in larger, often monolithic structures of kinship and interaction. As the discipline
progressed, these explorations were increasingly problematized. Questions were raised about
the possibility and politics of western writers and scholars’ claims to objectively and authorita-
tively investigate and represent exotic ‘others’. Throughout the early 1980s, this led a group of
young anthropologists to develop a critique of the claims to knowledge production anthropol-
ogy was accustomed to make (cf. Clifford, 1988; Clifford, & Marcus, 1986; Marcus, & Fischer
1986; Turner, & Bruner, 1986). Special concerns were raised about what a team of researchers,
or a single researcher can know, verify and responsibly present as cultural “truth” (Holman
Jones, 2007). This intellectual turn was dubbed the ‘crisis of representation’, and focused on
questioning how researchers write and represent the social world. This crisis was not only man-
ifesting itself in anthropology, moreover, a wide range of scholars in the social sciences and
humanities began to question the conventions by which their disciplines constituted the objects
of research, gathered information about them, and developed representations of reality legiti-
mately constructed as knowledge. Thus, an intellectual crisis ensued encapsulating ontological,
epistemological, methodological, representational, and political aspects (Butz, & Besio, 2009).
This intellectual crisis emerged in the wake of postmodernist thought, which developed in
the mid- to late-20th century. Postmodernists contest the assumption that objectivity is at all
possible, because they believe that the methods and procedures employed in research are ulti-
mately and inextricably tied to the values and subjectivities of the researcher (Bochner, 2000).
Any efforts to achieve objectivity are foiled from the outset, because ethnographers always
come with ideas that guide what they choose to describe and how they choose to describe it
(Wolcott, 1999). That is, these choices are grounded in a “set of intellectual assumptions and
constitutive interests (Stivers, 1993, p. 410). By problematizing objectivity, postmodernism
creates a context of doubt wherein methods are subject to critique but are not necessarily
rejected as false. The goal of postmodernism therefore is not to eliminate the traditional sci-
entic method but to question its dominance and to demonstrate the possibility of gaining and
sharing knowledge in a diversity of manners. To this end, all assumptions inherent in estab-
lished research methods (both qualitative and quantitative) are questioned. And researchers
are encouraged to “abandon all established and preconceived values, theories, perspectives…
and prejudices as resources…for study” (Vidich, & Lyman; 2000, p. 60).
Postmodernism questions the dominant scientic paradigm, fosters other ways of knowing
and explicitly acknowledges the growing power of research to change the world. Doing so,
postmodernism opens up a space for “the sharing of unique, subjective and evocative stories
of experience that contribute to our understanding of the social world and allow us to reect
what could be different because of what we have learned(Wall, 2006, p. 148). With this in
mind, the ‘crisis of representation’ prompted a rethinking of the form and purpose of socio-
cultural investigation and description. Following the idea that knowledge is produced through
representation, researchers sought a solution by developing experimental (i.e. non-convention-
al) forms of representation that challenged the realist tradition of ‘been there, seen that, know
that writing (Reed-Danahay, 2002, p. 421). The objective was to destabilize ethnographic
authority by experimenting with forms of writing that emphasized the socially and politically
constituted nature of knowledge claims. Researchers called for accounts foregrounding dia-
logue, incompleteness, the impossibility of separating or collapsing life from/into texts, and an
ethical responsibility to the “subjects” of ethnography (Holman Jones, 2007).
4.2 Epistemological and theoretical framework
Autoethnography is one of the experimental forms of representation addressing the ‘crisis
of representation’ and its renewed interest in individual experience as it is situated in larger
cultural systems. Carolyn Ellis, one of the major proponents of autoethnography in the social
sciences and humanities, denes autoethnography as research, writing, story, and method
that connects the autobiographical and personal to the cultural, social, and political” (2004,
p. XIX). Like ethnography, autoethnography produces a representation of the social, and in
many of its usances, it shares with ethnography the goal of illustrating the social. Unlike eth-
nography, autoethnography also includes the analysis of one person’s life, the evocation of
emotions, and even the person’s potential connection to members of particular social groups
(Ruiz-Junco, & Vidal-Ortiz, 2011).
Whereas in traditional ethnography the researcher tries to become an insider in the research
setting, in autoethnography he or she, in fact, is the insider. The researcher takes his or her own
context and explores anecdotal and personal experience to address wider cultural, political,
and social meanings, and understandings. As a form of ethnography, autoethnography is “part
auto or self and part ethno or culture” and “something different from both of them, greater
than its parts” (Ellis, 2004, p. 32). As such, autoethnography combines two different meanings
of the term subject: the researcher as the subject of the research, as well as the subjective voice
in the narration. Then, by making the author a participant, and the author’s experiences, emo-
tions, and meanings to be data, autoethnography is able to unravel the researcher-researched
dichotomy. This dichotomy remains persistent in scientic discourse, making the separation
between researcher and researched to be taken as self-evident. Then, while writing autoehno-
graphically, the author takes the reader on a journey (mental and physical, real and metaphori-
cal) into and through his or her own social world. This journey, and the telling of it, constitute
the research project (Chaplin, 2011).
Most often when researchers want to render reexivity in a project, reections are included
as a separate paragraph in an otherwise neutral and objectively presented manuscript. Autoeth-
nography, in turn, goes a step further and treats reection as part and parcel of its approach.
Although the historical imperative is to obscure the details of the construction of research nd-
ings, autoethnography explicitly acknowledges the construction process as part of its journey
and aims to reveal and investigate the processes of research. Then, by embedding the author’s
reections in the narrative “autoethnography encompasses both process -what one does- and
product- what one gets after it is done” (Ellingson, & Ellis; 2008, p. 453).
By way of insisting on the use of personal stories, reections, emotions and experiences,
autoethnography asserts the inevitably subjective nature of knowledge, using subjectivity de-
liberately as an epistemological resource (Butz, & Besio; 2009). As such, autoethnography
interferes with the objectivity-subjectivity dichotomy, a dichotomy which is entrenched in aca-
demic discourse, by drawing blurry lines between detached, external knowledge and personal,
internal knowledge. It is this explicit use of subjectivity that makes autoethnography such an
unusual method in the social sciences. In the world of traditional science, securing objective
distance, thus avoiding subjectivity, is to be maintained to protect researchers and readers
from the emotional and intimate details of human lives, since these are conceived as detri-
mental in scientic practice (Muncey, 2005). Owing to their roots in postmodernist theory and
the ‘crisis of representation’, autoethnographers tend to reject the concept of social research
as a producer of objective and neutral knowledge. Thus follows that underlying the autoeth-
nographic approach is the conviction that a narrative closely documenting the researcher’s
personal thoughts, feelings, and actions and relates them to the wider social world, provides
the reader with a richer and more intimate experience of that world than they would get from
the generalized results of a conventional social scientic research project (Chaplin, 2011). It is
therefore true that in large part autoethnography developed as a critical “response to the alien-
ating effects on both researchers and audiences of impersonal, passionless, abstract claims of
truth generated by such research practices and clothed in exclusionary scientic discourse
(Ellingson, & Ellis; 2008, p. 450).
Often, autoethnographers use the method as a tool to connect personal storytelling with cul-
tural issues that surround them with the explicit intent to unearth bias and socialization inu-
ences. Constructionism and symbolic interactionism presume that the self is not a discrete, in-
dividual, xed entity but only exists in relation to others. Considering the self as embedded in
cultural meanings, autoethnography goes on to untangle the inextricable connections between
categorical and personal knowledge. This blurs the line between the author’s particular expe-
riences and the universality of those same experiences (Ellingson, & Ellis; 2008). Many au-
toethnographers for instance choose to shed light on uncomfortable issues which they feel are
needed to be heard. Issues such as sexual child abuse (Ronai, 1995), bulimia (Tillmann-Healy,
1996), the death of a parent (Berger, 1997), and studies surrounding racism, sexuality and
sickness are common. It is therefore not by chance that autoethnography is greatly inspired by
feminism and activist writings. For autoethnography proclaims that the personal is political,
and can be used to give voice to oppression, aiming to move people to action or new beliefs and
understandings. In this way, autoethnography resists the dichotomy of what should be private
and what should be public, what is merely an individual issue and what is a collective matter
(Ellingson, & Ellis; 2008).
In order to communicate the subjective world of the author, autoethnography takes on the
textual form that best conveys the author’s story to the reader. Whereas using the third-person
passive within a conventionally laid-out academic article is generally associated with posi-
tivism, postmodernism has relativized this dominant approach and opened the eld for ex-
perimentation. An autoethnographic account might take on many forms: poetry, simulated
conversations, fragmented and layered writing, entire essays written in the rst person, a play,
a descriptive report, photographic essays, or even a performance is among the possibilities.
Narrative forms of writing, which are generally associated with artistic practices, prevail in
autoethnographic accounts. Whether or not in combination with analytic forms of writing,
often different forms of representation and different genres of writing are used interchangea-
bly. Autoethnography thus aims to explore experimental (i.e. non-conventional) strategies or
forms of representation. Thus blurring the art-science dichotomy, and enabling researchers to
use all possible referent spaces to gather relevant data in order to answer its research question
(Bahadur Qutoshi, 2015).
Being premised on constructionism, the practice of autoethnography presumes that reality
is socially constructed and that meaning is constructed through symbolic (language) inter-
action (Berger, & Luckmann; 1966). This presumption enables autoethnography to critically
reect on taken-for-granted aspects of society, groups, relationships, and the self. From a
theoretical point of view, autoethnography can be conceived as a social constructionist project
that rejects the deep-rooted binary oppositions between the researcher and the researched,
objectivity and subjectivity, process and product, self and others, art and science, personal
and political(Ellingson, & Ellis; 2008, p. 450–459). It’s aim is to restore and acknowledge
the presence of the researcher/author in research, the validity of personal knowing, and the
social and scientic value of the pursuit of personal questions.
4.3 The eld of autoethnography
Although autoethnography emerged within anthropology, it is currently practiced in several
disciplines, with publications in sociology, communication studies, sport science, arts edu-
cation, psychology, performance studies, and so on. Given this diverse range of disciplines,
autoethnography proofs to be a broad and ambiguous category that encompasses a wide
array of practices” (Ellingson, & Ellis; 2008, p. 449–450). Accounts vary in emphasizing
self-reexivity, socio-cultural explanation, or the power of textual strategies to represent the
link between the self and the social (Ruiz-Junco, & Vidal-Ortiz;2011). This results in a varied
eld of research applications and the production of manuscripts that differ signicantly in tone,
structure and intent.
Recently, autoethnographers have begun to distinguish themselves from one another by
drawing a line between analytic and evocative autoethnography (Anderson, 2006; Hunt, &
Junco; 2006). Autoethnographers arguing for an analytic approach distance themselves from
the conception of autoethnography as being a non-traditional, postmodern form of research.
They argue for the compatibility of autoethnography with more traditional ethnographic prac-
tices, and explicitly focus on developing theoretical explanations of broader social phenom-
ena (Anderson, 2006). Evocative autoethnographers, in turn, focus on developing narrative
presentations that open up conversations and evoke emotional responses. Instead of simply
describing or explaining the social, as realists do, they argue for autoethnography to “evoke”
the social, and the use of experimental research techniques to upset the traditional scientic
narrative, to position the “I” as a haunting presence to the former (Ellis, 2004).
However, this distinction between analytic and evocative autoethnography is yet another
dichotomy employed to simplify the continuum of qualitative methods. Most autoethnographic
research is actually located in the messy middle ground of the continuum and features aspects
of both forms. Nonetheless, this dichotomy proofs to be a helpful tool for disentangling the
varied eld of autoethnography. Consequently, the following three sections use the continuum
as a a starting point for examining two examples of autoethnography and their relevance for
gaining insight into the eld of autoethnography.
Example 1
In the article Autoethnography: Critical appreciation of an emerging art (20 04),
Margot Duncan clearly positions herself at the conservative end of the contin-
uum of autoethnographic reporting. As a multimedia/hypermedia designer, she
researches the design of computer assisted learning applications wherein users
navigate the program content according to individual needs. Duncan wanted to
evaluate and improve her design practice. In need of a method that considers the
lifeworld and internal decision making of the researcher valid and noteworthy,
Duncan realized that what she needed was an autoethnographic approach. The
main data source Duncan used was a reective journal, which she kept over a
1-year period. Entries were numbered and indexed, and supported by other docu-
ments such as e-mails, memos and letters, storyboard and graphic sketches, com-
puter screen images, notes to self and from other design team members, govern-
ment documents, and technical logs. Duncan considers the assembling of this data
as part of her participant observation. Next to reective writing, a formative and
summative analysis was undertaken in which an overarching process of categori-
zation and theming provided the basis for theory development.
Duncan’s account exemplies a close alignment with Roose and Meuleman’s
(2017) denition of social science cited earlier in this. While using herself as sub-
ject, drawing on variable data sources and analyzing these in a structured manner,
Duncan was able to explore and develop theories for improving the practice of
hypermedia design. Still, Duncan remains skeptical and explores the method in a
gradual or maybe even careful way. This is evidenced by her referencing theory
extensively and showcasing methodological rigor. As she argues: “The collection
of multiple sources of evidence, the establishment of a chain of evidence, and the
use of peer review also helped establish my report as a scholarly rather than an
emotional or unreasoned account” (p. 11).
Example 2
Carolyn Ellis is one of the pioneers of evocative autoethnography. She explicitly
pushes “interpretive narratives to an extreme, to the point of leaving the ethno-
graphic method, focusing less on the notions of ethnography as analytical text,
and more on the centrality of “I” either for political or therapeutic purposes
(Ruiz-Junco, & Vidal-Ortiz, 2011, p. 193). Ellis’ research uses autoethnography to
explore emotions, subjectivity and embodiment, producing studies that encourage
compassion and empathy from readers and help them understand how to cope with
life’s stresses and struggles. In the article There are survivors: Telling A Story Of
Sudden Death (1993), Ellis reects on a family drama caused by the sudden loss of
her brother who died in a commercial airplane crash. Ellis’ story includes a dense
and detailed narrative that shows what happened, and the intentions and meanings
that unfolded both during interaction and during the telling of the experience. Posi-
tioning herself reexively as both narrator (author) and main character of the story,
Ellis assumes some experiences can be understood only when feelings are a signif-
icant part of the research process. By writing her story, Ellis attempts to see herself
among others, as a case among cases, an instance that records a difcult passage
of lived experience into verbal expressibility. Making a case for the importance of
these kind of narratives, Ellis states: “As social scientists, we will not know if oth-
ers’ intimate experiences are similar or different until we offer our own stories and
pay attention to how others respond, just as we do in everyday life. The “truth”
of this story then lies in the way it is told and the possibility that there are others
in the world who resonate with this experience” (p. 725). Ellis positions her “true”
story as one tting in the space between ction and social science, joining ethno-
graphic and literary writing, autobiographical and sociological understanding.
What these examples demonstrate
Although very different in terms of form and content, both articles are clear examples of au-
toethnographic research and demonstrate aspects of why autoethnography is useful. The arti-
cle by Duncan is an example leaning towards the analytic end of the autoethnographic continu-
um and showcases autoethnography’s usefulness in explicating tacit knowledge and improving
learning practices. Duncan also attests how autoethnography can assist in answering questions
otherwise difcult to answer. In Ellis’ research, autoethnography is used as a methodological
venue to explore emotional dynamics, a topic that conventional sociological methods and cat-
egories typically fail to explore or theorize. As such, both studies show autoethnography to be
a useful method when the conditions of knowledge production do not allow for experiences
to be neatly contained in traditional sociological categories or social scientic frameworks
(Ruiz-Junco, & Vidal-Ortiz; 2011).
The differences in terms of analysis and representation between both texts reside in them
having different purposes. Whereas Duncan aims at generating theory, Ellis’ primary aim is
evocation and inviting the reader for emotional interaction. This close relationship between
author and reader proofs to be an interesting and dening characteristic of evocative autoeth-
nography. From participating in a therapeutic engagement for self-discovery to understanding
the social world in novel ways, evocative autoethnography attests to have a complex manner of
activating the audience (Ellis, 1995). In pursuing emotional interaction, Ellis argues for the use
of experimental research techniques to upset the traditional scientic narrative. The biggest
part of her article therefore consists of descriptive literary writing, demonstrating “the impor-
tance of subjective understanding by allowing some narratives to stand on their own without
any analysis, explanation, or contextualization within a eld of research” (Ellingson, & Ellis;
2008, p. 453). The mode of storytelling resembles that of a novel or biography and “fractures
the boundaries that normally separate social science from literature...the narrative text re-
fuses to abstract and explain” (Ellis, & Bochner; 2000, p. 744). Further, Ellis’ article demon-
strates that autoethnographic writing can require considerable narrative and expressive skills,
skills generally associated with artistic practices.
Although there are plenty examples of evocative autoethnography almost solely consisting
of narrative (for instance Pelias, 2003; Paulette, 1993), Ellis’ example blends literary narrative
with a brief analysis of surviving the accidental death of a loved one and a discussion of her
desire to reposition social scientists and their readers closer to literature (Ellingson, & Ellis;
2008). By virtue of blending analysis with narrative, Ellis further argues for evocative autoeth-
nographies to trouble the socially constructed chasm between science and art (Ellis, 2004).
In understanding the autoethnographic continuum, one can argue that analytic autoethnog-
raphy, next to rendering the social world under investigation in a truthful manner, focusses on
transcending that world through broader generalization. This aim is aligned with more tradi-
tional forms of realist ethnography and usually results in a structured and analytic approach
to data-analysis and forms of representation. For evocative autoethnography, the aim is to
evoke the social and facilitate a reconsideration of the status quo regarding the social phenom-
enon under investigation. In achieving this goal, evocative autoethnographers are stimulated
to experiment with forms of representation, and to combine scientic analysis with practices
generally associated with literary or artistic writing. As follows, how to position a study on
the autoethnographic continuum is predominantly informed by the purpose of the author.
This purpose in its turn inuences both the form of writing and the perception of the audience
regardless of the intended meaning of the piece.
4.4 The state of understanding regarding autoethnography as a research method
The emergence of autoethnography has not been spared from controversy, and its status as
legitimate research remains subject of debate (Sparkes, 2000). In terms of critique, Duncan
(2004) notes that criticisms have been leveled at “more experimental forms of autoethnogra-
phy in which the boundaries of scholarship are merged with artistic expression as a way of
challenging the limitations of what is normally accepted as knowledge in academic contexts
(p. 11). Concerns are especially raised about criteria for evaluation, or the assessment of valid-
ity and reliability in a research account. As Ellis (1991, p. 30) argues: “[T]hat we have to take
precautions in interpreting, generalizing, and eliminating bias is the same as we do with any
data we collect is assumed.” Evocative autoethnographers further argue that traditional crite-
ria for judging validity cannot be and need not be applied to autoethnographic writing. Since
autoethnography is guided by different epistemological and ontological assumptions than tra-
ditional science, they argue that it makes no sense to impose traditional criteria on judging the
value of a personal text (Sparkes, 2000). Also, rigorous methodology and generalizability are
not necessarily that which should be attained. Think of the life being expressed [in a narra-
tive] not merely as data to be analyzed and categorized but as a story to be respected and
engaged…we shouldn’t prematurely brush aside the particulars to get to the general” (Boch-
ner, 2001, p. 132). Further, Frank (2000) noted that those who criticize the rigor of personal
narrative are missing the point. And the point is not to engage narrative systematically but to
engage it personally. In judging narratives, then, we should “seek to meet literary criteria of
coherence, verisimilitude, and interest” (Richardson, 2000, p. 11). In evaluating an evocative
account, questions should be asked as: Does this account work for us? Do we nd it to be
believable and evocative on the basis of our own experiences?” (Garratt, & Hodkinson; cited
in Sparkes, 2000, p. 29). Ellis (2000) adds: Can the author legitimately make these claims for
his story? Did the author learn anything new about himself? Will this story help others cope
with or better understand their worlds?” (p. 275).
When considering the status of autoethnography, the discussion is informed by opposing
views on what constitutes social scientic research, and what it should pursue. For some evoc-
ative autoethnographers whether or not they are labeled as science is not even important. In
the words of Ellis (in Holman Jones, 2004): “It really doesn’t matter what I’m called or what
the research is called, it matters what the work does.” And: “I still get asked, “So how is this
work science?” My rst response is, “I don’t care whether you call it science or not.” That
argument is not important to me” [51]. Through stating this so boldly Ellis explicitly demon-
strates that autoethnography problematizes a rigorous delineation between what is “science”
and what is “non-science”. Much like the autoethnographic texts themselves, the boundaries
of research and their maintenance are socially constructed, and subjected to boundary work
(Sparkes, 2000). Autoethnography then, is often used to disrupt scientistic narrative thinking
and writing. Drastic or dramatic description, insider/outsider debates, and a critique of realism
and representation are all part of what makes autoethnography distinct in social scientic
circles. Laslett (1999) has claimed that it is the intersection of the personal and the societal
that offers a new vantage point from which to make a unique contribution to social science.
Personal narratives can address several key theoretical debates in contemporary sociology:
macro and micro linkages; structure, agency and their intersection; [and] social reproduction
and social change” (p. 392). As such, autoethnography has enriched our theoretical critiques
of sociological research, complicating the multiple interests and “truths” that may be articu-
lated in the process.
Certainly, a rst-person account is a violation of positivist dogmas, and autoethnography is,
according to some, a travesty of social science methodology. But in the light of postmodernism,
the situation has changed and the boundaries between disciplines such as social science, doc-
umenta ry lmmaking, and creative writing have loosened. Autoethnography is now discussed
and taught in plenty university departments all over the world, and rst-person narratives proof
to be useful assignments for student. When considering evocative autoethnography, the point
is that an autoethnographer developing an evocative account in a systematic way echoes the
‘signature’ features of social science. Source referencing, crafting arguments, and the general
sense of carefulness and accuracy are characteristics that all good researchers attend to. Add
to this a narrative that, in many cases, pursues reexive awareness and a sense of spontaneity
and freshness. Context is also a key factor in dening what counts as autoethnography, and
what does not. In the case of an academic article, the journal itself provides authentication for
an autoethnographic account - hence the importance of earlier discussions with peer reviewers,
editors and publishers. So, although the autoethnographic text speaks in its author’s voice, this
professed openness should not obscure the fact that there are yet more voices lurking behind
the autoethnographic text. The voices of editors and publishers and - further behind still - the
‘voices’ of those with the power to uphold unacknowledged conventions, ultimately form the
boundaries between what counts as social science and what does not (Chaplin, 2011).
While acknowledging its controversial status, this article wants to accentuate the status
and potentialities of autoethnography as an unusual and experimental method exploring the
boundaries of scientic practice. By enabling inquiry when the conditions of knowledge pro-
duction do not allow for experiences to be neatly contained in traditional social scientic
frameworks, autoethnography offers an interesting venue for formulating research questions.
As such, the method must be considered as an interesting critique, and a complement to - rather
than a replacement for - the knowledge generated through more traditional forms of qualitative
research. In alignment with Ruiz-Junco and Vidal-Ortiz (2011) and Wall (2008), this article
argues for autoethnography as an intriguing and promising, but also challenging form of in-
quiry that offers a way of giving voice to personal experience for the purpose of extending
sociological understanding.
5. ‘de mentaliteit is van plastiek’: from process to product
After contextualizing autoethnography and describing it as an unusual method in contempo-
rary social science, I now turn to a subjective narration of the process leading me to produce
the artists’ book de mentaliteit is van plastiek and the relevance of autoethnography for the
project as a whole.
5.1. A given proposition
The mentality is plastic! These simple but enigmatic words are about the only thing I re-
member from a hazy night out somewhere in 2014. Me and my friends where out in a bar while
we overheard an older man in an attempt to persuade his drinking buddies of this proposition.
While convincingly repeating the sentence over and over, the man refrained from giving ar-
guments, let alone did he formulate a denition. The night faded and all that remained was
an elusive statement with little context and no given content. Ever since, my friends and I use
the phrase whenever it seems appropriate. Commenting on something we see or hear, in a way
guessing what he meant, what the statement could mean, if indeed the mentality is plastic, and
how it could manifest itself as a phenomenon of some sort.
5.2 Photography
I have been taking pictures for approximately 5 years now. In the beginning I used disposable
cameras and after a while I bought my rst point-and-shoot. Carrying a camera and docu-
menting my close environment thus grew on me and the habit of taking pictures unfolded
rather intuitively. In the summer of 2017, I was being quite prolic and began experimenting
with a Canon a1 and a tripod. Often I would take my bike and roam Flanders’ elds and
neighborhoods searching for scenes and instances I wanted to capture. During that time I was
greatly inspired by professional skateboarder and photographer Jerry Hsu’s exhibition “A love
like mine is hard to nd.” In a YouTube video (2016) Hsu talks about the rationale behind the
exhibition and his approach towards photography in general. Hsu describes his photography
as an exploration of what he loves to see, and that in order to get photographs he has to go out
and nd those things, nding the things he wants to see. Furthermore Hsu also states: “I take
what’s arbitrarily around me and create what I want to see” (Ker, z.d.). So, next to ‘seeing’ as
a passive act and photography as a mere registration, Hsu conceives himself, the photographer,
as an agent, as he who transforms the mere seeing into an image. In this way, Hsu demonstrates
that by assembling and exhibiting a body of work a photographer is able to present an interpre-
tation of his or her environment.
I felt this to be a very simple but honest approach and it resonated with an eagerness I felt
towards developing my own photographic vision. Next to roaming suburbia, I cultivated an
interest in my material environment, and began photographing everyday objects. By then I was
photographing people, places and objects in their natural settings: a practice resembling doc-
umentary photography which is characterized by straightforward and accurate representation.
Taking these documentary like pictures and thinking about them, led me to come up with new
ideas for images. I felt a need to bring my ideas into the image and realized that by interven-
ing, adjusting or making up scenes I could mold ideas and material realities into images of my
preference. Consequently I started to focus on behavior. Sometimes I would take up the per-
formative role myself (for instance the image of me holding a pink donut), other times I would
ask friends to perform a certain idea (for instance my roommate Dennis playing PlayStation
in our couch). Nurturing this subjective intent helped me to create what I wanted to see and
photograph, and to think more thoroughly about which ideas, messages and emotions I wanted
to express. One could argue that slowly my practice was evolving from a documentary towards
an artistic approach to photography, from being a registrar to becoming an interpreter.
After gradually developing an approach to making images, a need for overview manifested
itself. What kind of pictures was I making, and was it any good? I decided to make a selection
of images from my archive and printed approximately 300 proongs. While going through the
selection, the phrase “the mentality is plastic” popped in my head again and I decided to use
this phrase as a guiding principle to make a thematic selection of the images I had taken so
far. I felt the phrase could serve as a loose frame in helping me to uncover my photographic
preferences. Concomitantly I was exploring visual interpretations of plastic mentality.
Obviously, I started to doubt myself. Is my selection any good? Is there really a connection
between the images and the phrase? At that moment I needed feedback from fellow photogra-
phers and people whom I trusted. After discussing the work with several people, the selection
became more rened: approximately 60 images survived the 15 selection rounds. Although the
idea of using the phrase as denominator was rather vague for most people, someway somehow
it resonated. I was still convinced to continue the project and for then the intention was to
compose a photographic series entitled “Plastic Mentality.
5. 3 Text
While organizing the series of images, I talked to my roommate and fellow sociologist Mathi-
js about the project. A few days later I received a document in my chatbox containing an
unnished poem pondering plastic mentality. The poem enclosed an unstructured sequence
of words, and the brainstorm-like quality of the text struck me. I decided to continue the
brainstorm and gradually started to add new words and sentences to the document. By then,
I carried a piece of paper with me all the time writing down whatever seemed relevant.
I thought of the text as adding a new layer to the project and conceived this as an extension to
the images, describing things I would like to, but could not, or not yet photograph (for instance
500g prime T-bone steak, monstertrucks and after-work party).
Meanwhile, I began reecting on the similarities and differences between written language
and image. I started to acknowledge language’s potential to give general labels to phenomena.
Inasmuch as the images I had collected are always a depiction of a specic reality out there,
a constellation captured in time and space, I acknowledged that I could use language in order
to add more abstract descriptions to the project. Terms and observations I could not directly
capture in images, but felt as necessary to deepen my interpretation of plastic mentality. Thus,
I supplemented the brainstorm with abstract terms and quotes from social scientic literature,
contemplations on plastic mentality, my experience of composing the work, philosophical re-
ections on the image as such, and interpretation of text and imagery in general.
As I was assembling the text, I felt a resemblance to the practice of taking eld notes.
I collected and organized whatever I observed and deemed relevant for the project. In treating
plastic mentality as a phenomenon of some sort, echoing the state of contemporary culture,
I was concomitantly writing down social observations, advertising slogans, passages from tel-
evision series and song titles. Hereby I found a way to compose an eclectic text ranging from
Friedrich Nietzsche to F.C. De Kampioenen. In combining these different sources and forms
of text, I could include both descriptive and reective information in the project.
5.4. Analysis
After this rather spontaneous process of assembling images and text, I yearned to get a more
structured view on the project. Being formally trained as a social scientist, I reverted to a type
of analysis resembling social scientic technique (cf. grounded theory, content analysis). I
came to see the text and images as data and began theming and categorizing the collected data.
First, I conducted a content analysis of the selected images which led me to construct following
three broad categories: environments (for instance the image with the trampoline), objects (for
instance the image of the phone on a tripod) and behaviors (for instance the hand holding a
lighter). Second, I themed and categorized the text, which by then consisted of 30 pages.
The categories were as follows:
1. Image categories:
~ Environment s (for instance met aangelegde natuur)
° Gardens (for instance een horticultureel pareltje)
° Suburbia (for instance de v staat voor verkavelingswijken)
~ Behavior (for instance en op woensdagmorgen moet ik propere kantoortapijten stofzuigen)
° Recognizable situations
(for instance godverdomme, nu heb ik weer op mijn tong gebeten)
° Types and characteristics of people
(for instance de f ristifanaat die zelf hulpboeken vergaart)
~ Objects (for instance het product van de Westerse geschiedenis)
° Food and drinks (for instance 500 gram prime T-bone steak)
° Cars (for instance Monstertrucks)
° Clothing (for instance in Jartazi-trainingspak)
° Devices (for instance elektrische eierkoker)
2. Zeitgeist:
~ Social observations (for instance 3 sigaretten roken in een pauze van 20 minuten)
~ Sociological concepts (for instance het vloeibare tijdsgewricht, a reference to the
book Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty by Zygmunt Bauman)
~ Philosophical reections on reality (for instance een mobiel leger van metaforen,
metonymia’s en antropomorsmen, a quote taken out of Over waarheid en leugen in
buitenmorele zin by Friedrich Nietzsche)
3. References to pop culture:
~ Advertising slogans (for instance lekker, echt lekker, a slogan for Beemster)
~ Passages from television series (for instance mijn gedacht!, a recurring statement of
Balthazar Boma in F.C. De Kampioenen)
~ Song titles (for instance 10.0 00 luchtballonen, by K3)
4. Reections on the work itself:
~ Text and image (for instance en soms verwar ik de dingen met hun namen)
~ Art and making art (for instance met open einde)
~ My feelings towards the project
(for instance hoe verder je het gaat zoeken hoe meer je zal begrijpen)
5. Remainder (for instance ‘buiten’ is levensechter dan ‘binnen’)
As shown, I constructed 4 general categories out of the analysis, each consisting of multiple
subcategories. There is also one remainder containing everything that would not t in the oth-
er categories. The rst category contains the three subcategories which are aligned with the
categories that resulted out of the content analysis of the images. Next to words which could
be used interchangeably with the images, these categories also contain text reecting thereon,
more specically text that is impossible to capture directly in an image. For all subcategories I
also mentioned the frequently recurring topics. The second category includes text commenting
on, or signalling the zeitgeist. I noticed I assembled a lot of social observations, things and situ-
ations I saw and heard, as if I were an anthropologist investigating contemporary society. This
category also encompasses sociological concepts, reections and titles I took from reading so-
cial theory. Then, I noticed a lot of text expressing philosophical reections on reality: quotes
and concepts relating to epistemology taken from philosophical writings. Taken together, this
broad category demonstrates a desire to pin down a certain collective mentality and demon-
strates the inclusion of sociological reection in the project. The third category consists of di-
rect expressions of the zeitgeist I was examining. I noticed that I assembled a lot of references
to pop culture, words and strands of text conveying the abundance of stimuli characterizing
the everyday phenomenological experience. The fourth category contains text reecting on the
project itself. While constructing the work, I reected on using image and text, on me making
a cultural artefact, and my feelings towards the project. Obviously, this category grew when the
autoethnographical dimension of the project started to manifest itself.
5.5. Representation and association
By then the project consisted of a selection of images and text neatly subdivided in mul-
tiple self constructed categories. This process of categorization helped me to recognize
recurring patterns in the work whereby I acquired a clear view on what sort of content I
was producing. Based on the analysis I started to add words and images to underrepresent-
ed categories. I was especially adding images of behavior, where text wise I continued to
reect on the zeitgeist and my feelings towards the project. In a way these focusses also
intertwined as I was wonderi ng about how an abstract conception of society manifests itself,
how it connects to something very specic as a photographic image. What kind of environ-
ment, behavior or object represents the zeitgeist? Are concepts as “liquid society”, “postmo-
dernity” or “society of the spectacle” translatable into a group of images, or even a single im-
age? Is an image of a smartphone xed to a tripod in a way representative for the postmodern
condition for instance? I was also wondering about how sociology and photography sometimes
share the same purpose: exploring and representing society. But, how different are the means
in serving that purpose? And what is the contribution of one discipline for the other?
Although analysis led me to a better understanding of the work, and concomitantly instigat-
ed making new work, it did not feel quite right in terms of a nal representation for the project.
I was not making a scientic work, and my data was in no sense a representative sample of
some sort. The project I was pursuing was not aiming at the production of valid and reliable
knowledge of society through methodological rigor… I had assembled images and text from
my own environment using an elusive quote as sta rting point. All this evolved intuitively and I
realized my focus was on making a work of imagination which would inevitable remain open
to interpretation.
As I began inquiring the use of photography in social science methods, I found that pho-
tographs usually are incorporated as part of the research process, as data for discussion in
interviews, and particularly as tool or illustration in combination with more traditional meth-
odology. This relates to the contradictory nature of photography, “a medium noted for its re-
alism, yet routinely subject to multiple perceptions and interpretations(Schwartz, 1989, p.
122). Recognizing the ambiguous nature of photography it makes it difcult, in most cases, to
use photographic images as empirical data. However, when considering the meaning people
ascribe to images, meaning that is socially constructed, some interesting opportunities for
social scientic work arise (among others: Schwartz, 1989; Harper, 2002; & Scarles, 2010).
While using visual material in sociology usually intends to create awareness of how images
might complement written text in research, Chaplin (2011) argues for autoethnography to help
reinforce visual sociology’s plead for unconventional textual formats. Chaplin demonstrates
this by exploring her visual diary through autoethnography: “Longitudinally, respondents may
be able to grasp, from this picture-and-text narrative something about the everyday life of a
middle-class English woman, living in London and semi- retired from being a social scientist
(p. 250).” Adhering to evocative autoethnography, Chaplin argues that instances exist wherein
words are not sufcient to represent her feelings. By combining word and image, she hopes
that information is conveyed to the reader more fully and vividly by words and images than
it would have been by words alone” (p. 251).
Although there are plenty interesting applications of photography in social scientic re-
search, even in autoethnography, my primarily intent was artistic representation. I was engag-
ing myself in the construction of meaning, not the inquiry thereof. The images I selected were
highly ambiguous (a directed analysis of reality). All I could attain in composing the series
and relating it to fragmented writing would be a subjective interpretation in the form of a
partial truth. Besides, the project did not inquire a specic research question. Hence I quickly
realized I did not have to align to scientic standards and criteria, and I could pursue making
choices based on intuition and esthetic qualities. And although the analytic phase was neces-
sary to strengthen my selection (and not purposed as a basis for theory as in grounded theory
research), I now left the analytic approach behind and began thinking about a more tting and
nal form of representation for the project. As my acquisition of images evolved as a highly
intuitive and associative interpretation of my environment, I started working on making a nal
selection and sequencing of the images guided by loose association, making choices on criteria
such as form, colour, content, mood,… For the text, I adopted the same approach: I reorgan-
ized the text focussing on association and literary quality (sound, meaning, sequencing,
length,…), making the text more readable, resembling a stream of consciousness. By then,
I was working towards the nal form of representation for the project: I was composing an
artist’s book consisting of images and text presented in a semi-deliberate ux of association.
5.6. The article
After printing a dummy of the book, I still felt something was missing. I realized, that
although I left the analytic approach for what it was and acknowledged I was not pursuing
a scientic project, I could not neglect the sociological imagination steering the process of
the project. I wanted to render my perspective coming from a social science background
and evolving into making a cultural artefact. I decided to add a third layer to the project
in the form of a sociological paper. As such, I began reading about autoethnography. What
especially drew me to autoethnography was its emphasis on reection, subjectivity and
personal experience in combination with social scientic methodology. But, I also wanted
to investigate this intriguing method, I wanted to understand how the social scientic text
has managed to move so far away from positivism and the third-person passive. First, I started
writing about the state of understanding regarding autoethnography as a research method,
and describing my experience in learning about this new and ideologically challenging genre
of inquiry. The focus was on the theoretical and methodological underpinnings of autoeth-
nography, and its blurring of the boundaries between art and science. The idea was that the
article would come as an appendix to the book, and it would be up to the spectators to make
connections between both texts. In order to visualize this connection, I made a last addition
to the book and took a portrait of myself standing on the roof of my house holding a magni-
fying glass,. As such, displaying a stereotypical representation of the scientist. By including
the image at the end of the book, I further wanted to emphasize the relevance of post-artistic
reection for the project.
After sending a draft of the article to two fellow social scientists and receiving plenty of
comments, I realized that the text did not sufce, and the aim of the article was still to vague
in connection to the book. So, I began rewriting the article, this time focussing on aligning an
aut oethnog raphic approach with my experience of ma k ing an ar t is t’s bo ok while being for mal-
ly trained as a social scientist. Finally I began to see where I was going and how the three
layers of the project could come together.
5.7. From process to product
Thus far I narratively chronicled the process of de mentaliteit is van plastiek. However, this
subjective narration was not included in the rst draft of the article: the focus then was on the
status of autoethnography in social sciences debate and autoethnography’s resistance towards
a strict art-science dichotomy. Since I was making an artistic work and wanted to engage it
scientically, I thought this dichotomy would be the most relevant for my project. The book
is characterized by association, fragmentation, open endedness, ambiguity…and yes, it aims
at evocation. However, the book in itself was not set up to be an autoethnographic endeavor.
So, the actual autoethnographic dimension of the project started to manifest itself while I was
reecting on my experience of making the book, while I was learning about autoethnography,
and felt a desire to render this reection visible for the spectator. I learned that especially
autoethnography’s resistance towards the process-product dichotomy would be of great value
for the project.
During the making of the book I struggled with making choices. On the one hand I was
aware that I was making an artistic work, that I could allow myself to make choices based on
intuition and esthetic qualities, that I was permitted to represent images and text in an associ-
ative way, and that my endeavor would be a subjective and ambiguous one. On the other hand
my formal training as a social scientist pushed me to approach and analyze the gathered data
in a scientic manner. Although, I left the analytic approach behind, I still thought about the
project in scientic terms and I wanted to render this sociological understanding meandering
the project. So, when the book was almost nished, I again turned towards autoethnography,
in order to understand these struggles, to understand what I was producing and what my role
as a creator making a cultural artifact consisted of.
Autoethnography provides alternative modes of experiencing the process of research
(Ellingson, & Ellis; 2008, p. 450). In contemplating autoethnography’s relevance for the pro-
ject, this alternative mode of experiencing the process of research came to the foreground and
I applied autoethnographic writing in rendering my reections on the process of making the
book. Next to writing this article I added more reexivity in the book itself, thus including
reections in the text and a self-portrait. The historical imperative in science is to obscure
the details of the construction of research ndings (Ellingson, & Ellis; 2008). By using strat-
egies as passive voice researchers seem to report on distant processes, leaving only a scientic
product on the surface (Richardson, 2000). In general one could argue that scientic literature
consists of a collection of nal products, endpoints in a massive network of processes leading
up to what then gets called ‘scientic’ knowledge. This focus on nal products is in most cases
also true within the art world. Artists contribute to art by producing artworks, which often
remain hermetic, difcult to enter and ambiguous to interpret. Gaining insight in the processes
of artistic production, and interpretation thereof, is what art historians or critics pursue. Per-
sonally I deemed it important to cultivate both: to not only present a nal artistic product, but
to include and expose the often messy process which led me to this nal product. “Often this
takes the form of revealing the researcher’s complex role in a study of a specic context and
of acknowledging the messiness and mistakes that inevitably imbue the process of conducting
such research” (Ellingson, & Ellis; 2008, p. 453).
In writing about my experience of making the book, I drew on all material I assembled
during the process: the words and images in the book, notes, comments of reviewers, and
my recollection of the different phases. I chronicled these contemplations in a literary style,
leaving space for the inclusion of doubts and remarks, and combined this with a general study
on autoethnography. As such, autoethnography provided me with a framework suitable for
approaching and answering questions I could not directly include in the book, or address using
traditional social science methodology. Further, autoethnography learned me to acknowledge
the importance of revealing and interrogating the process of research (artistic and/or scien-
tic). For instance, Chaplin goes so far to argue that autoethnography professes and displays
more authorial honesty than conventional social scientic texts: Indeed, autoethnography
inevitably amplies the signicance of what conceals: underlying structural elements such as
academic craftwork, methodological ‘distortions,’ editing demands, personal secrets; all of
which lurk in the shadows” (2011, p. 245).
Through chronicling the process of making the artists’ book de mentaliteit is van plast-
iek, I further want to emphasize the importance of the process for the production of art, and
the potential value of the autoethnographic perspective in gaining understanding therein. So,
when I now consider the project as a whole, both the book and appendix are equally important
for the nal representation thereof. Together they make up an autoethnographic enterprise
which combines narrative and analytic writing, artistic and scientic representation. Though
the quest on which I embarked started as undened, I slowly realized the importance of the
creative journey in getting to the end product. Consequently I want to argue for autoethnogra-
phy as providing a potentially tting vantage point for rendering and understanding the artistic
process for artists themselves. In addition, this type of artistic autoethnography can also proof
to be relevant for the sociology of art, in order to gain insight into the subjective experience of
the process of artists in producing cultural artefacts.
6. Conclusion
This article started with a broad introduction to social sciences in order to provide a starting
point for embarking on an overview of the state of understanding regarding autoethnography as
a research method. Linking autoethnography to postmodernism and the ‘crisis of representa-
tion’, the method is presented as a qualitative research method characterized by subjectivity
and experimental strategy. As a social constructionist project, autoethnography, in addition,
rejects the deep-rooted binary oppositions between researcher and researched, objectivity and
subjectivity, process and product, self and others, personal and political, art and science. The
eld of autoethnographic practices in its turn proofed to be varied, encompassing a wide ar ray
of practices ranging from analytic, and often rigorous, accounts to evocative and artistic ac-
counts. How to position a study on the autoethnographic continuum is informed by the purpose
of the author and concomitantly informs the form of writing and the perception of the audience.
Operating at the periphery of social scientic research, autoethnography is able to question
social science’s status, and on an epistemological and theoretical level it must be considered as
an interesting critique thereof. In this manner, autoethnography is able to complement to more
traditional forms of qualitative research. This article thus argued for autoethnography as an
intriguing and promising, but also challenging, form of inquiry that offers a way of giving voice
to personal experience for the purpose of extending sociological understanding.
After this theoretical and methodological discussion, the article turned to a subjective nar-
ration of the project de mentaliteit is van plastiek. This part presents the process of the project
as one informed by artistic and scientic decision making, and combines narrative and ana-
lytic writing. Thus, illustrating that what began as an artistic exercise slowly developed into
an in-depth and structured exploration of the mysterious statement the mentality is plastic”.
As such, the project as a whole resulted into a multi-layered account consisting of a visual
and textual artistic book complemented with an autoethnographic reection. By approaching
the project from the process-product dichotomy I hope to demonstrate my role as a creator,
interacting with my environment, through assembling photographs and text, but also through
interacting with peers, artistic oeuvres, ideas, social scientic researchers and literature. The
project thus alternates between structured and analytic ways of inquiry and spontaneous ones,
from analyzing my own artistic data to writing about autoethnography and chronicling the
process of the project. Through making an artists’ book I could construct a visual and concep-
tual investigation which is only possible within an artistic logic. By learning about autoethnog-
raphy I further learned to understand what I was doing, and how I could realize the project. For
the project, learning and writing about autoethnography proofed to be a productive approach to
gain insight in my personal artistic process. As such, I hope to demonstrate autoethnography
as an interesting approach for inquiring process and product in coming to a better understand-
ing of the production of cultural artefacts. Further, I foster a modest hope to generate a more
general contribution to an understanding of the (social) world through sociology, fragmented
writing and photography. This enterprise aims to contribute to artists seeking to gain insight
in their own artistic process, but it also aims to contribute to the sociology of art, in order to
gain insight into the subjective experience of the process of artists. In conclusion, the project
as a whole inquires the undened endeavor I embarked on at the end of 2017 that resulted in a
visual and conceptual investigation of my own world through photography, fragmented writ-
ing, and sociology, offering an interpretation of the elusive concept of plastic mentality which
is now bundled in the self-published book de mentaliteit is van plastiek.
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