Autoethnography Decolonise Decolonise The Curriculum Ethnography Storytelling

Can autoethnography begin to decolonise writing?

By Forough Ramezankhah

The Persian poem by Rumi[1] translates as, 

Every one became my friend from their own stance, their own suspicion

None sought out my secrets from within me

My secret is not far from my plaint

But their ear and eye lack the light

Can autoethnography begin to decolonise writing?

As a non-native speaker, from my undergraduate studies to now as an academic in the UK, I have faced the challenges of writing in a particular Western style. The challenge of language starts from making yourself understood to navigating the cultural cues and relatively recently the language of social media. We know that academic writing is associated with an objective and impersonal style, while primarily avoiding the first singular personal pronoun, “I”, which renders it as subjective and unauthoritative.[2]  We equally know that the language we speak shapes the way we think.[3] Our language in association with our culture leads the way we express ourselves, these are inseparable although several variables exacerbate this entanglement. Furthermore, the dominance of the English language globally and in academia and its cultural imperialism is undeniable. In the arena where writing has always been power and resource, the question that needs to be asked is this, who are the most marginalized? Who is excluded, from writing and more importantly to be read, in the intersection of the aforementioned obstacles?

Image credit: Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels

Storytelling style of writing is one way to overcome these obstacles and to offer a counter narrative, an equaliser. Delgado tells us that:

Stories and counterstories, to be effective, must be or must appear to be noncoercive. They invite the reader to suspend judgment, listen for their point or message, and then decide what measure of truth they contain. They are insinuative, not frontal; they offer a respite from the linear, coercive discourse that characterises much legal writing.[4]

Charles Dickens has utilised this mode of insinuating call for reform successfully. Dickens in Oliver Twist did not tell us the story of any poor little orphan boy. He knew his readers, those in influential and policy making posts in the Victorian era. It was story of a marriage between wealth and poverty, literally and metaphorically. Dickens needed his readers to relate to Oliver Twist. Dickens wrote about (potentially) affluent little boy who had ended up in poverty. Reminding his readers that the unjust law and lack of humane services can affect them and their loved ones too, hence creating incentives for policy change. The story creates identification and empathy, it is the way to hear the unheard. 

Now imagine you find yourself in a country not your own out of little choice, with a totally unfamiliar culture and language. You begin to speak the language, but the challenges of speaking and writing and cultural navigation proves extremely difficult and the very medium to communicate these challenges are taken away from you. At times of communication, this would feel like being handcuffed with a tape over your mouth!

Bourdieu in the context of schools, tells us that there is another kind of capital and wealth, which he called cultural capital. He says this capital is difficult to define but: 

It is language first of all. A certain mastery of language, like speaking proper French. Of course, everyone in France speaks French, even immigrants who have just arrived speak French. But they speak a French which is worthless on the school market. If you speak that kind of language you will earn a straight F. So, it is language and everything that comes with it. It is what you acquire in a cultured family, from daddy telling you stories, from reading books, even children’s books. All of this is capital. These are scarce resources, unequally distributed. And those who have more of it, because of this unequal distribution, reap the profits attached to scarcity. Another factor of inequality is good-will towards the school system, what is called docility from the Latin word docilis: disposed to be instructed… [Some children] are better prepared to give the school system what it requires, which is cultural goodwill. And it pays. It is rewarded.[5]

Bourdieu is of the view that these modes of domination transcend the individual’s consciousness. Accumulation of capital creates domination which in turn causes further capital which feeds into the relation of domination and dependence. It is the intersection of command of English, then the mastery of this language and adhering to the particular style of writing that encompass the former and latter.[6] The fact that Bourdieu uses the example of immigrants, as the most marginalised, is significant, “even immigrants who have just arrived speak French. But they speak a French which is worthless on the school market.” This can be interpreted as the language minus its cultural setting, minus its collective history, minus its humour, minus its cultural capital. 

The schools and universities are the prime example of perpetuation and reproduction of power through the medium of dominant language, language as defined by Bourdieu. This domination in the absence of what Robin West reminds us below, is in fact colonisation by language: 

 …stories and storytelling bind us together in unique and morally salutary ways. When we tell stories, we not only convey information, but we share a piece of history; we expand not only our knowledge of what happened, of what someone did, but also of why and how they did it, of how it felt, why it seemed necessary, how it fit into a worldview.[7]

 However, there must be opportunities, there must be appetite in a pragmatic way to encourage and reward reflective storytelling in academia. 

Can autoethnography become a weapon? 

Ellis says, when we are joyful, we are busy enjoying the moment. It is during the challenges that autoethnography can become a powerful tool. This reflective method of research channels the experiences through the researcher, the writer can become the subject of the research. The fact that the role of reflective writing at assessment level in academia is rather minimal feeds into the need to decolonise writing in Higher Education.  Autoethnography is the combination of autobiography, me telling my own story, and ethnography, telling the story of a group of people or culture.[8] Its origins is in anthropology and ethnography. In this mode of research, the researcher is willing to embrace subjectivity, rather than deny it.[9]

In the words of Rumi, if none seeks out your secrets from within you, then in order to share it you must tell your story, it must be uttered, it will be the story of others too. I do not suggest undergraduate students to engage with autoethnography research necessarily, but what I am saying is that it needs to be advocated when there is lack of voices amongst the marginalised. It can be a tool to decolonise writing, it can be a transformative tool to collectivise individuals, it can encourage collaboration between people who are marginalized also between those who are marginalized and those who are privileged. 

The case for utilising autoethnography 

In terms of the purpose of social inquiry, Bochner formulated[10] a kind of tripart conceptualisation of the different goals of social sciences inquiry. Focusing on the philosopher Richard Rorty in mid 1980s, in which Rorty developed a kind of pragmatist orientation towards social inquiry and suggested that unless we could agree on purposes of our inquiry, we could not really agree on the criteria for evaluating those purposes and it seemed to Bochner that there were very different strains between social scientists on what the purposes of social inquiry are. In a series of essays Bochner began by stipulating 3 different legitimate purposes for social science inquiry:

1.         Prediction and control, which many social scientists who went through education in the social sciences in the 60s and 70s are familiar with. 

2.         Interpretation and understanding in the Hermeneutic tradition, which had very different set of interests and objectives.  

3.         Growing interest through postmodernism in criticism and social change.

If the purpose of the inquiry is the latter, then Bochner argued that there is a false dichotomy between theory and stories. He says if we look at the history of storytelling in the academy, even in sociology and in anthropology, we can see that stories and literature can be very theoretical. If we look at novelist such as Charles Dickens, we can see that those writings are very highly theory grounded ways of telling stories. Bochner is of the view that in post-postmodernism there was a concern of how social sciences fit into a moral framework and that the question of how we should live, which is a moral question, is just as important as what we can know. In 1990 Bochner[11] began to look at personal narrative. He took a turn towards looking at human suffering, looking at how we can help people turning to activism and all those issues through the vehicle of storytelling and autoethnography. 


Our diversities make us who we are, the beauty of humanity and our commonalities bind us together as one. 

بنی  آدم  اعضای  یکدیگرند

که  در آفرینش  ز یک  گوهرند

چو عضوی  به  درد  آورد  روزگار

دگر عضوها را  نماند  قرار

تو کز محنت  دیگران  بی غمی

نشاید  که  نامت  نهند  آدمی

This much quoted poem by Saadi[12] translate as:

Human beings are members of a whole
In creation of one essence and soul
If one member is afflicted with pain
Other members uneasy will remain
If you have no sympathy for human pain
The name of human you cannot retain

This piece has been a miniature reflective writing about my journey as a student and later as an academic in the UK. I have used my own experience and have anchored it in the literature that calls for emancipation of writing and liberation from a prescribed mode of communication by the means of narratives and storytelling. I have situated this call in the movement to decolonise the universities’ curriculum since the universal style of writing and communication has its roots in culture imperialism. Of course, the mode of writing depends on the nature of our inquiry, if it is to hear and read the other, then narrative, storytelling and autoethnography can be an invaluable tool for activism and showing human suffering. 

[1] The Persian scholar and Sufi mystic of the 13th century, whose great poetic works are the Masnavi and the Divan.

[2] See Hyland, K. (2001) “Humble servants of the discipline? Self-mention in research articles”. English for Specific Purposes 20: 207-226 and Tayyebi, M. (2012) “Personal Pronouns in English and Persian Medical Research Articles”. English for Specific Purposes World 

[3] Boroditsky, Lera. “How Language Shapes Thought.” Scientific American, vol. 304, no. 2, 2011, pp. 62–65.

[4] Delgado, R. (1989). Storytelling for oppositionists and others: A plea for narrative. Michigan Law Review, 87(2411) p. 2415

[5] Carles, P. (2001).  La Sociologie est un sport de combat: Sociology is a Martial Art. A film directed by Pierre Carles and produced by Annie Gonzalez and Véronique Frégosi. Excerpt from the documentary, Sociology is a Martial Art, is about Bourdieu’s work and was filmed over three years (1998 – 2001). Carles’ camera follows Bourdieu as he lectures, attends political rallies, travels, and meets with his students, staff, and research team in Paris and includes Bourdieu having a conversation with Günter Grass.

[6] For further analysis about Western style of communication see, Ramezankhah, F. The Tale of Two Men: Testimonial Styles in the Presentation of Asylum Claims, International Journal of Refugee Law, 29: 1, 2017, 110–137. 

[7] West, R. (1993). Narrative, Authority, and Law. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press. p.425. 

[8] Reed-Danahay, D. (1997) Auto/Ethnography Rewriting the Self and the Social (ed) Oxford: Berg

[9] Ellis, C. (2004) The ethnographic I. Walnut Creek: Alta Mira Press

[10] Bochner, Arthur P. (1984). The functions of human communication in interpersonal bonding. In Carroll C. Arnold & John W. Bowers (Eds.), Handbook of rhetorical and communication theory (pp.544-621). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

[11] Ellis, C and Bochner, AP. (1997) (eds) Composing Ethnography: Alternative Forms of Qualitative Writing. Sage.

[12] Saadi is the 13th-century Persian poet, his poem Bani Adam (humankind) has been quoted by world leaders including US president Barack Obama in his videotaped New Year message to Iran in March 2009. 

About the author

Forough Ramezankhah is an emigrant. Her research involves a holistic approach towards examining international refugee law: from the history of colonialism and migration and the politics surrounding refugee status determination to the sociology of collective memories and narrative of asylum seekers. In her inquiry, Forough places emphasis on the language of seeking asylum and psycho-social analysis. 

Image credit to Mark Neal at Pexels

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