Autoethnography. This post is about making your life situations part of the method to study a certain topic, and to uncover the tensions and contradictions of a settled official version, that are not readily visible when you research other people’s lives.
Of course, the criticism made to this method comes to mind right away, such as those presented by Sara Delamont (2009). Autoethnography gives voice to those who don’t need more space or time to be heard, because they already have it. That is to say, autoethnography is criticised for amplifying the voice of the privileged, and reproducing a system of privilege. This criticism is understandable, but leads to a vision of a world made of black and whites, and no greys. It is a vision that doesn’t allow to open black boxes and a prioris, which should be one of the principles of ethnography in the first place. Delamont also states that social scientists have powerful methods to study unknown worlds (p. 59), and social scientists world’s aren’t among these, and aren’t interesting.
This is ironic, as one of these black boxes is that academics are seen as privileged and «no problem» people. But is a fact that academics, and especially those starting their careers in current higher education and research contexts, have serious trouble getting a decent job. They can’t just be considered as privileged and as performing mental work and that’s it. This is a dated official truth.
It’s true, we, young academics, often have mac computers which are expensive, a nice pair of glasses, a often modern place to go and get work done, and have powerful methods of study. We are able to speak and write in different languages, and often travel a lot. But based on the work I have done documenting not only my daily life being an academic precarious worker, but dialoguing with others in similar situations in different cities of Europe and Latin America, I can’t help but wonder if this is some kind of glamorous precariousness, in the current market-led higher education. I wonder what my colleagues think of this phrasing.
Before getting more and more involved with the itdUPM (never mind the numbering on the pictures, it’s all mixed up),
one of the places I went working at in Madrid was the Medialab Prado. As always, I carried my equipment or “essential kit” with me (you can find more tidy ones in a photo project on «portable kits» here). One day, the bottle of water I had spilled inside my bag and flooded my stuff. I had to lay everything on a sunny (and pretty hot) spot and cross my fingers I hadn’t lost my precious tool of work: my computer (1, 2).
I couldn’t get any work done that day.
I won’t spare you the image of my sweaty face complaining to my mobile phone camera (5). My computer finally made it.
With glamourous precariousness, it’s the little details. Like when you have to find a sentence to explain your flexible attitudes towards work in a postdoc application (3), and feel a tiny knot on your stomach as you have to make yourself look like you’re endorsing the practices that will -hopefully, if getting the job- represent your future work and life precariousness. The section 7 of this form reads “(Essential to the job) A flexible attitude in working practices”. It maybe pointed at interdisciplinarity, or having a group spirit. But I didn’t get it like that then.
This is not just as a complaint of a privileged PhD. I write about this to show how we are made responsible for our own work conditions and logistics, and this adds up to fragile/precarious lives. I think this deserves public discussion (as others do as well, e.g. Conesa, Gill, Castillo y Moré, Santos et al.), and this is why I publish such personal and even derisory events here.
Delamont, S. (2009). The only honest thing: autoethnography, reflexivity and small crises in fieldwork. Ethnography and Education, 4(1), 51–63. doi:10.1080/17457820802703507