How do I write an auto-ethnography


There are different varieties of auto-ethnography, which ideally differ in terms of the choice of topic (liminal phases or everyday practice), the text genre (more literary-artistic or more conventionally academic-social science) and the aim of the text (strongly analytical, more descriptive or evocative) (Bönisch-Brednich 2012, 58 ff).

Evocative autoethnography is one of those highly reflective methodological approaches that understand the researchers' relationship to their field as a constitutive and valuable part of the research process (Breuer 2000; Bonz 2014; Kühner et al. 2016; Ploder and Stadlbauer 2016, 2017). The researchers' personal experience, embedded in their social and cultural context, forms the starting point for the research project: "The focus is on personal experiences as they are shaped and performed in social and cultural contexts," writes Johanna Hefel (2014, 201). Thus auto-ethnography can also be described as “biography research from the inside out” (edba, 197). Many studies focus on transitions (e.g. migration, the dying process, the doctoral process, becoming parents). Questions of belonging and marginalization are also frequently dealt with (e.g. homosexuality, being a woman, political resistance, being a sex worker), as well as body-related research fields such as sport, sexuality, experiences of violence or illness.

Access can be found in arts-based research or fiction-based research (Schreier 2017, 5ff., 14), in the canon of performative social science (Roberts 2008, Mey 2020), as part of the narrative turn and the business cycle of storytelling (Schreier 2017, 7). Auto-ethnographic works not only take text form, but scripts for performances and performances in front of an audience are also created (Canella 2014; Gergen and Gergen 2016).

Autoethnographies follow a performative cognitive process: They offer the recipient the opportunity to engage in an identifying and meaning-generating relationship with the text / performance (Denzin 2008, 231; Winter 2011; Bochner 2001). The research process does not end with the production of the text by the researcher, but only with the sensual experience of the respective readers or the audience. Texts and performances are therefore designed to be open to different readings.

The work process begins with looking through existing material (diary notes, poems, photos, personal notes, emails ...), which enables access to the emotional memory of the experience that is to be discussed. [1] New material can be created by, for example, writing down memories of events and interactions, having conversations with the personal environment, making introspection notes (Ellis 2008) or conducting and transcribing more formal research discussions (Foster 2006). All types of ethnographic data collection can be used here.

Two prominent representatives of this variety formulate the procedure as follows: “I start with my personal life. I pay attention to my physical feelings, thoughts, and emotions. I use [...] systematic sociological introspection and emotional recall to try to understand an experience I've lived through. Then I write my experience as a story. By exploring a particular life, I hope to understand a way of life [...]. [T] the goal is [...] to enter and document the moment-to-moment, concrete details of life. " (Ellis / Bochner 2000, 737)

Based on this data, several versions of the auto-ethnographic narrative are written. The first draft typically has a protagonist with certain characteristic properties, a place / a landscape / a setting (with noises, colors, movements) in which the event takes place, and an action. It is not necessary to tell “everything”: detailed descriptions should be used sparingly and effectively on selected aspects. Proven stylistic devices include direct speech, dialogues, the form of poetry, playing with dialects, metaphors, photos, an unconventional representation of words on the printed page, using the present as a narrative form, using a first-person narrator, switching between describing one Experience 'while it happens' and thinking about the experience in the retrospective (e.g. in the form of a layered account, Ronai 1992, 123).

During the rewriting process, the story is checked to see which aspects readers identify with and where they might feel addressed. The corresponding parts of the text are systematically strengthened. In order to find these points in your own story, it is helpful to have peers read the text. In the writing process, it can always be helpful to get feedback, to discuss together what triggers the story. The common search for epistemically meaningful elements as well as the systematic linguistic reinforcement of important topics and passages have a similar status in auto-ethnography as the interpretation / evaluation in other qualitative procedures. Writing itself becomes the "Method of Inquiry" (Richardson et al. 2005). According to Carolyn Ellis, the goal is “readers should be able to feel the specificity of the author’s situation” (Ellis 2008, 854). Through self-thematization, the reader should be made aware of what it is like to be in this situation. The key to this lies in the contextualization of one's own history - the cultural and social embedding of the event must become clear on the descriptive and / or performative level.

Finally, the work of a cultural anthropology student from Graz should serve as an example: The starting point of her auto-ethnography was her experience as a child and young woman who is involved in the fire brigade in rural areas, as well as the impending end of this commitment (Eidenhammer 2015). She collected memories, photos and other material and began to weave them into an auto-ethnographic narrative. In the course of the editing of the text by the author, social hierarchy and village life / (not) belonging, gender and fire brigade, as well as biographical turning points emerged as strong motifs. In several phases of rewriting and experimenting with different forms of representation, a performance and a text were created. The performance included, among other things, reading a letter that the adult protagonist addressed to her childish alter ego, who had just joined the fire department youth, as well as sound recordings of howling sirens, putting on a fire department uniform and a video of the firefighter's run through the village to the operations center. Through the evocative nature of the presentation, the author succeeded in making the recipients understand a variety of dimensions of experience and encouraging them to connect with the story with their own experience: the identity-creating function of the fire brigade for the protagonist, the skills that they acquire , the tactile dimension of fire extinguishing, the physical effects of this work, as well as social ambivalences (e.g. being taken seriously as a woman during training, village cohesion and help, social position of the family, rural fire brigade vs. studying in the city).

[1] Here we present a possible variant that worked well for participants in our writing workshops and for ourselves.



  • Bochner, A. P. (2001). Narrative’s virtues. Qualitative Inquiry, 7 (2), 131-157.
  • Bonz, J. (2014). “In the medium of one's own humanity…”: Explanations and examples of the ethno-psychoanalytical ethnographic understanding, which understands irritations occurring in the field research process as data. In B. Lauterbach (ed.), Everyday Life - Culture - Science. Contributions to European ethnology (pp. 35–60). Würzburg: Königshausen and Neumann.
  • Breuer, F. (2000). Scientific Experience and the Body / Body of the Scientist: Social Science Considerations. In C. Wischermann & S. Haas (eds.), Studies on the History of Everyday Life: Vol. 17. Body with history. The human body as a place of self and world interpretation (pp. 33–50). Stuttgart: Steiner.
  • Canella, C. (2014 May 23). Records of Falkenstein: A performance about gaining recognition in the scienti fi c community. Performance, 10th International Conference of Qualitative Inquiry, 6Urbana-Champaign, 2.30pm - 3.50pm. Accessed on March 13, 2018.
  • Denzin, N.K. (2008). Reading and writing as a performative act. In R. Winter & E.
  • Eidenhammer, Lisa (2015): howling of sirens. An auto-ethnographic debate as a firefighter. Seminar paper, Institute for Cultural Anthropology and European Ethnology, Karl-Franzens-Universität Graz (as part of the course 'Writing as a Method of Inquiry. Autoethnografisches Schreib' in the winter semester 2014/15).
  • Ellis, Carolyn (2008): Systematic Sociological Introspection. In: L. M. Given (ed.): The Sage encyclopedia of qualitative research methods. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage Publications, 853-854.
  • Ellis, C., & Bochner, A.P. (2000). Autoethnography, personal narrative, re fl exivity. In N.K. Denzin & I. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (2nd ed., Pp. 733-768). Thousand Oaks: Sage.
  • Foster, E. (2006). Communicating at the end of life. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  • Gergen, M. M., & Gergen, K. J. (2016). Playing with purpose: Adventures in performative social science. Writing lives. Abingdon: Routledge
  • Hefel, J. (2014). Will you be with me to the end? Personal Experiences of Cancer and Death. In S. L. Witkin (ed.), Narrating social work through autoethnography (pp. 197-230). New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Jones, T. E. Adams, & C. Ellis (Eds.), Handbook of autoethnography. Walnut Creek, Calif .: Left Coast Press.
  • Kühner, A., Ploder, A. & Langer, P.C. (2016). Introduction to the special issue. Qualitative Inquiry, 752 22 (9), 699-704.
  • Mey, Günter (Ed.) (2020). Performative Social Science Journal of Psychology, 28 (1).
  • Niederer (Ed.), Ethnography, Cinema and Interpretation. The performative turn in the social sciences: The Norman K. Denzin Reader (pp. 203–238). Bielefeld: transcript.
  • Ploder, A., & Stadlbauer, J. (2016). Strong re fl exivity and its critics: Responses to autoethnography 814 in the German-speaking cultural and social sciences. Qualitative Inquiry, 22 (9), 753-776.
  • Ploder, A., & Stadlbauer, J. (2017). Strong re fl exivity: auto-ethnography and ethno-psychoanalysis in conversation. In J. Bonz, K. Eisch-Angus, M. Hamm & A. Sülzle (eds.), Ethnography and Interpretation. Group supervision as a method of reflective research (pp. 421–438). Wiesbaden: Springer VS.
  • Richardson, L., & Adams St. Pierre, E. (2005). Writing: A method of inquiry. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (eds.), The Sage handbook of qualitative research (3rd edition, pp. 959-978). Thousand Oaks: Sage.
  • Roberts, B. (2008). Performative social science: A consideration of skills, purpose and context. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 9 (2), Art. 58, https: // Accessed on March 13, 2018.
  • Ronai, C. R. (1992). The re fl exive self through narrative: A night in the life of an erotic dancer / researcher. In C. Ellis & M. G. Flaherty (eds.), Investigating subjectivity: Research on lived experience (pp. 102-124). Newbury Park: Sage.
  • Schneider, B. (2005). Mothers talk about their children with schizophrenia: A performance autoethnography. Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing, 12, 333-340.
  • Schreier, M. (2017). Contexts of qualitative social research: Arts-Based Research, Mixed Methods and Emergent Methods. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 18 (2), Art. 6. Accessed on March 13, 2018
  • Winter, R. (2011). A plea for critical perspectives in qualitative research. Forum Qualitative Social Research / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 12 (1), Art. 7. 910 10.17169 / fqs-12.1.1583. Accessed on March 13, 2018

Podcasts & reading recommendations:

  • Video by Aisha Durham (University of South Florida): An Introduction to the Autoethnographic Method (fee required)
  • Bochner, A. P., & Ellis, C. (2016). Evocative autoethnography: Writing lives and telling stories. Writing lives: Ethnographic narratives: Vol. 17. New York: Routledge.
  • Hefel, J. (2014). Will You Be with Me to the End ?: Personal Experiences of Cancer and Death. In S. L. Witkin (ed.), Narrating social work through autoethnography (pp. 197-230). New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Mey, Günter (2020). Performative social science. In Journal of Psychology. (

Article written by Johanna Stadlbauer and Andrea Ploder (2019)


Stadlbauer, Johanna / Ploder, Andrea (2019). Evocative auto-ethnography. QUASUS. Qualitative method portal for qualitative social, teaching and school research. URL (