Autoethnography In Consumer Research


Pre-print of forthcoming paper appearing in Hackley, C. (2016) Autoethnography in Consumer Research, Chapter 8 in Paul M. W. Hackett (Ed) Qualitative Research Methods in Consumer Psychology- Ethnography and Culture, New York, Routledge, pp. 105-117.


Autoethnography has made significant gains as a method in marketing and consumer research but much confusion remains. This paper reviews the scope, methods and trajectory of auAutoethnography In Consumer Researchtoethnography in marketing and consumer research. Broadly understood as the use of first-person, subjective accounts of experiences, feelings and memories as research data in the arts and human sciences, autoethnography combines elements of biography and autobiography with fieldwork techniques such as participant observation, phenomenological interviews, and diaries. The paper outlines differing styles and methods of autoethnography in academic and practice domains whilst also pointing out controversies and debates around its scientific status as a research method. The paper concludes by pointing to the potential for autoethnography to re-connect social science with meaning through accounts of subjective experience.


The term autoethnography designates a distinctive group of qualitative fieldwork methods and writing conventions that sit within the areas of interpretive sociology and anthropology. Autoethnography is broadly understood as the use of first-person, subjective accounts of experiences, memories or events as research data in the arts and human sciences. Autoethnography combines elements of biography and autobiography with fieldwork techniques such as participant observation, phenomenological interviews, and diaries. Autoethnographic studies seek not to privilege the agency of the subject over the sweeping influence of structure and history, but to articulate the personal voice within the interstices of structure and by so doing to connect the biographical with the social and historical. The approach moves the researcher reflexivity of ethnography to the foreground, placing the interpreting researcher on the center stage of the research performance.

There are many variations of autoethnography as Denzin (2014) notes, including, but not limited to, “meta-autoethnography (Ellis, 2009)…collaborative autoethnography (Chang, Ngunjiri and Hernandez, 2013)…  autoethnography (Norris and Sawyer, 2012) collaborative writing (Wyatt, Gale, Gannon, and Davies, 2011) ethnodrama (Saldana, 2011)…sociopolitics (Pelias, 2011)…ethnographic fiction, polyvocal texts and mystories (Richardson, 2000; Ulmer, 1989) (p.vii). Within marketing and consumer research, probably the most well-known approach has been based on the researcher introspecting on their own internal states in relation to their consumption practices. Labeled as Subjective Personal Introspection (SPI) (Holbrook, 1995) this approach uses introspection as a source of consumer research data, as in Gould’s (1991) ‘introspective-praxis’ approach to studying his own sexual drives and their influence on his consumption behavior. Narrative forms of autoethnography, categorized by Gould (1995) as ‘extrospection’ as opposed to introspection, have also appeared in the marketing and consumer research literature, as discussed below. Narrative autoethnography broadly refers to the subjective personal account of social and historical events and differs from SPI in that it articulates the subjective voice in a social and historical context, integrating internal thoughts and emotions with accounts of events that are external to the writer. From narrative ethnography, it is a short step to literary journalism or Creative Nonfiction (CNF) (Gutkind, 1996; Hackley, 2007) in the sense that each approach to autoethnography privileges the subjective voice and shares the ontological stance that the text does not merely represent the world, but constitutes it. Hence, the literary conventions of research writing are seen as being constitutive of their subject matter. They shape both the role and the reception of social research. Autoethnography differs from conventional social research reports in that it do not rhetorically position the speaker outside the text as a neutral observer. Rather, they express social research as a person-centered phenomenon, and in a humanistic spirit.    Cheap_servides

Denzin (2014) locates autoethnography in a tradition inspired by C. Wright Mills (1959) and J-P Sartre (1963) because it liberates the sociological imagination and re-connects the personal with the social. Reed-Danahay (1997) positions it as a postmodernist turn in ethnography that reflects the problematization of the unified self and a collapse of realism and objectivity. This places autoethnography in a position to challenge the epistemological assumptions of positivistic scientific reporting. Pratt (1992) emphasizes its critical potential, referring to the voice autoethnography can give to the marginalized, giving it a liberatory quality. Allsop (2002) emphasizes autoethnographic writing’s self-reflexivity, in a study of the way immigration changes the notions of being home or not home, while Tiwsakul and Hackley (2012) take the same theme of immigration/emigration in a collaborative autoethnography to explore the shifting sense of identity of the immigrant and how that marginalization is expressed and identity re-ordered through selective consumption.

Autoethnographic ontology and textual performance

The various traditions of autoethnography share the ontological stance that human experience is constructed and re-constructed through texts. Although the autoethnographic method shares some aspects with phenomenology, the experience is not seen as a foundational category but as a performance that is reconstituted in the telling (Denzin, 2014). The phenomenological experience becomes textualized when it is articulated. In a fundamental way, humans interpret sense data to make sense of the empirical world, and, as David Hume (1740) pointed out, all we know of the world is our interpretation of those sense data. The contemporary autoethnographic text, though, does not emerge from Cartesian solipsism but entails a subject, the author in his or her gendered, social, and economic context, and the author’s sense of the ‘other’, the audience for the performance (Denzin, 2014). In this regard there is a linkage between autoethnography and some versions of discourse analysis (DA) (e.g. Potter and Wetherell, 1987) since subjective accounts of experience do not merely say things, they also do things in orienting the speaker in the social world and accomplishing social goals of identity positioning. In this sense, objectivity in the writing of social research is seen as a construction of the text. In autoethnography as with other interpretive approaches, the ways in which the subjectivity, and the social and class position of the speaker, inflect the viewpoint, must be teased out and analyzed as part of the research process, rather than rhetorically silenced.

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As Deetz (1980) notes, “Speaking speaks not only information but a tradition, a tradition which carries along that which will be recovered as thought…every judgment is based on prejudgement” (p.13). Language, then, is not a window to a world of implacable reality but a tool with which we make and re-make ourselves and our worlds (Deetz, 1980). This relativist ontology of social life implicitly but directly challenges a key assumption of Western science, namely that the researcher stands outside the research, and outside the research text, looking in. The subjective perspective, in autoethnography, is regarded not as a source of research ‘bias’ that potentially interferes with an accurate representation of absolute reality, but as a source of ‘rich’ interpretation (Deetz, 1980) and of reflexive analytical insight. Rhetorically, the researcher is trying to persuade the reader to accept a particular interpretation of data, as with any research paper, but in conventional research writing, this persuasive element is masked or silenced rhetorically through the textual performance of scientific objectivity. In autoethnographic writing, the claims and positions taken are clearly subjective, and the reception of the piece is based on the reader response, the interpretive judgment of the reader against standards of scholarship, verisimilitude, emotional resonance, and literary exposition.

Of course, autoethnography is very indeterminism invites its most severe criticisms, on the grounds, to list a few examples, that it is “too artful…not scientific…for having no theory, no concepts, no hypotheses…for not being sufficiently rigorous, theoretical or analytical”, and, if more were needed, autoethnography is criticized for using “small samples…biased data…and bad writing” (Denzin, 2014, p.70). These criticisms arise from within the natural science paradigm and hence autoethnography cannot engage with them on their own terms. Rather, autoethnographies have to be judged on literary criteria. For autoethnography, reliability and validity are seen in literary terms: reliability refers to the writer/narrator’s credibility, and validity invokes the reader’s response: is the account convincing, coherent, and emotionally resonant? The paradigmatic divide between art and science is heightened in autoethnography, and quasi-positivist criticisms of autoethnography as a scientific method are ultimately irreconcilable with its ontology, aims, and goals.

This chapter, then, explores applications and issues of autoethnography in marketing and consumer research and acknowledges that autoethnographic work in the field occupies a contentions position. Autoethnography is inherently critical since it can be deployed to voice the experiences of the marginalized or disadvantaged, and it can be used to express worldviews that jar with ideological currents yet also chime with the shared sensibility of the reader, as might the narrative of a novel. In this sense, autoethnography links social science and literature, and poses a methodological challenge to the prevailing natural science model in business and management research in general, and in marketing and consumer research in particular.

Autoethnography in consumer research- managerial approaches and academic politics  

Consumption would appear to be a prime site for autoethnographic studies. As the logic of marketing practice shifted from delivering utility to mobilizing meaning (Levy, 1959), the inner managerial approaches and academic politicsrationalizations and subjective experience of the consumer have assumed greater importance as a topic for social and managerial study. Autoethnographies offer a route to the understanding of consumption that is mirrored in the logic of the depth interview and the ethnographic study. Indeed, the current vogue for anthropological approaches in brand management reflects the perceived strategic value to marketing practitioners of consumer insight over positivistic knowledge. In postmodern and poststructuralist traditions of marketing and consumer research, consumption is mooted not as an exercise in rational choice with the end of utility maximization, but as a symbolic exercise of liberatory postmodernism (Fuat and Venkatesh, 1995) through which consumers’ use and display of brands symbolically construct a subjective sense of identity (Elliott and Wattanasuwan, 1998). Autoethnography is well-placed to elicit the subjective construction of meaning through acquisition and display of brands.

The espousal of anthropological principles in brand management is regularly recycled as a putatively new tend, but the informal use of consumer ethnography as opposed to formal survey data in marketing is far from new. For example, the story is that Phil Knight, co-founder of Nike, traveling from a track meet to track meet with his early model track shoes in the back of his car, to get close enough to his primary customers to understand their milieu so he could feed those insights back into product design and marketing. Yet Knight was merely copying what Adi Dassler, founder of Adidas, had done some fifty years earlier when Dassler enlisted track stars of the 1928 Olympics to test and co-design his track shoes. Indeed, Adidas was said to employ a group of anthropologists in their 1990s ‘street’ marketing initiative. Strangely, academic marketing has lagged some way behind marketing practice in its use of research methods and remains dominated by survey and experimental research, even though anthropological approaches to the symbolism of branding have been established in the field for more than fifty years (Levy, 1959; see also Douglas and Isherwood, 1978). Two of the most prominent academic marketing and brand consultants, Grant McCracken (e.g. 1986) and Douglas Holt (2004) are trained anthropologists who have developed their cultural ideas of marketing over several decades.

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The pursuit of trying to understand the meaning of consumption, though, has been sidelined in academic consumer research by the enterprise of measuring cognitive states such as attitudes and perceptions. The domination of a natural science model of research in academic marketing dates from the Ford and Carnegie reports of the 1960s, and consumer research has split off from marketing to become a separate professional field, even though the distinction is absurd: academic marketing was founded a century ago on the principle that it was the discipline of consumer insight (Hackley, 2009a). Within the academic field of consumer research, a parallel split has now developed between the dominant experimental paradigm and a marginalised interpretive paradigm, much of the latter grouping being loosely represented under the label Consumer Culture Theory (CCT) (Arnould and Thompson, 2005).

Autoethnography, then, stands in direct contrast to the conventions of third-person objectivity, positivistic reductionism, and statistical generalization more familiar to readers of business, management, and organization research studies. A goal of autoethnography is to use the subjectivity of the author as a bridge to the reader and by so doing to re-constitute some element of life or the world in a way that resonates at a personal level. Consequently, quantitative social scientists often see it as belonging in the realm of art and literature rather than social science, echoing the positivism expressed by A.J.Ayer (1936) who argued that if a phenomenon cannot be measured, then it belongs in the realm of metaphysics rather than in empirical science. In contrast to this view, social scientists who prefer working in interpretive traditions feel that autoethnography generates rich ethnographic insight as opposed to narrow generalization. For Deetz (1980), though, the goal of insight is not incompatible with science, since it is not “…a statement of the irrational in contrast to the rational nor the subjective over the objective” (p.7) but, rather, it recontextualizes knowledge as a means, not as an end. Interpretive research generates insight that is not positivistic but critical and transformational, and yet it does not necessarily stand in direct opposition to positivistic knowledge. Deetz (1980) suggests that knowledge and insight need not be mutually incommensurable.

Autoethnographic studies remain relatively rare in marketing and consumer research (but see exceptions below) partly because their critical orientation is perceived to be professionally risky in intellectually conservative business schools (and top marketing and consumer research journals) that are firmly wedded to a natural science model of social research. It offers a striking counterpoint to, and, an implied criticism of, the paradigmatic norms of studied objectivity and statistical generalization that obtain in business research. Holbrook (1995) warned Ph.D. students and early career academics that using SPI, his version of autoethnography, might well incur the displeasure of senior colleagues paradigmatically opposed to its epistemology, its ontology, its tone, and its choices of the subject matter. Gould (2008), another pioneer in the field, recognizes that his noted 1991 study of his own sexual drives published in the Journal of Consumer Research was regarded as highly controversial by many disciplinary colleagues, and indeed, still is, with long term implications for Gould’s career and academic reputation. Others, such as Brown (1999) acknowledged it notoriety (p.4) but thought it a work of genius. The trenchant criticisms of autoethnography in consumer research, often focusing on the issue of data validity (Wallendorf and Brucks, 1993: see Gould, 1995), remain a point of contention in academic business and management research.  Nonetheless, its subversive aura also makes autoethnography attractive to critically inclined, or, perhaps, professionally reckless, business academics.    callus1

Autoethnographic contributions in marketing and consumer research

In spite of its edgy political positioning in academic business schools, autoethnographic research has made inroads into marketing and consumer research with some landmark studies (especially Gould 1991; and Holbrook, 1995, as noted above) and a lineage of subsequent contributions, including some based on Subjective Personal Introspection (SPI) (Shankar, 2000: Holbrook, 2005), and others on narrative auto-ethnography (Belk: 1996; Brown, 1998; Hackley, 2006), collaborative autoethnography (Tiwsakul and Hackley, 2012) teleethnography Sherry (1995), and ethnomusicological ethnography (Olsen and Gould, 2008), amongst others. There are many more instances of qualitative studies in business and management research that use elements of biographical or autobiographical data, such as the life history method deployed to explore advertising creatives’ professional lives in McLeod’s (2009) study, or the use of personal subjective vignettes to give reflexive context to a study of top advertising agencies’ working practices (Hackley, 2000). The small but distinctive contribution of autoethnography in marketing and consumer research was celebrated in 2012 with a special issue of the Journal of Business Research edited by Stephen Gould and including papers such as Brown (2012a), Wohlfeil and Whelan (2012), Minowa, Visconti and Maclaran (2012), Patterson (2012) and Roberts (2012).

In marketing and consumer research, as well as the wider realm of social science, autoethnography has been seen as a development of postmodern (Brown, 1995: 1997) and experiential (Holbrook and Hirschman, 1982) research that challenged not only the ontological assumptions of the dominant neo-positivistic natural science research and research reporting model but also its writing conventions. As Brown (2005) has noted in his literary analysis of the writing style of some of the leading figures of academic marketing and consumer research, the success of the marketing subject field is nothing if not a triumph of style over substance. This is not to denigrate the contributions of its seminal gurus- their writing was punchy and compelling, anecdotal and personal, and, moreover, widely read. In his autobiographical essay on the disciplinary implications of marketing writing, Brown (2012b) laments the stilted scientism that renders so much current research in the field unreadable, and unread, at least by non-academics. He argues that since marketing’s turn to a natural science model of research in the mid-1960s, its research papers have become more technical and more formulaic, with dense citation, sophisticated statistical models, and little personality. As a result, practitioners do not read them anymore, and academic marketing and consumer research operate in a performative silo, making solipsistic and unconvincing claims of connection to the worlds of marketing managers and consumers.

Brown’s (2012b) focus on writing is not an issue of ‘mere’ style. Popular textbook marketing has developed a set of stylistic conventions with which it is closely identified (Hackley, 2003) and which have been key to its growth as a global force in university education. Arguably, marketing and consumer research have become part of the ideological language-games of economic neoliberalism (Hackley, 2009b). The implicit conventions in marketing writing that language can be used to represent the concrete world, and that research writing in the field refers to a real-world that lies beyond the text, are challenged fundamentally by autoethnographic. As Deetz (1998) has noted, philosophy of science debates around methods that focus on epistemology and the nature of (social) scientific knowledge often ignore the more fundamental issue of ontology. There remain many deep questions about the nature of human experience and knowledge. Autoethnographies and other interpretive methods can open up, problematize and engage with such questions in ways that are invariably provisional but can be personally and culturally resonant. In positivistic social science, the world is a finished thing that can be placed under investigation. In interpretive social sciences such as autoethnography, the world is continually made and re-made, through the ways in which we describe it.  Cheap_servides

Writing and autoethnography  

I personally enjoy reading autoethnographic contributions that are framed as creative non-fiction (CNF), also called literary journalism (Gutkind, 2006: and for a discussion in marketing research, Hackley, 2007). CNF foregrounds the autoethnographic virtue of trying to write in an engaging and compelling way. The writing craft is central to success in academic and practical consumer research (Brown, 2005) yet it receives little attention, even though it is can itself be a method of inquiry (Richardson, 2000). Broadly a form of narrative ethnography, CNF is not typically included amongst ethnographic work, and neither has it made major contributions to marketing and consumer research. However, I feel that it helps illuminate some important issues. For its critics, too much output under the CNF label is neither good writing nor useful social commentary: as with autoethnography, it can be self-indulgent, turgid, and downright embarrassing. For enthusiasts, though, it can be transforming for the reader and author and contributes to a better understanding of the world and of the person in the world. It has been described as a hybrid of literature and non-fiction, at its best it is characterized by a vivid expositional style, a literary voice, uses of narrative techniques such as scene-setting, and a tendency to show rather than tell. In CNF, as with autoethnography more generally, the standards of truth or verisimilitude are autobiographical and the distinction of fiction/nonfiction is dispersed amongst writerly values of sincerity, historical truth, subjective truth, and fictional truth (Denzin, 2014, p.13).

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The first-person account of subjective experience written in a literary style is a popular genre of non-fiction writing in work by writers like Knut Hamsun, Laurie Lee, Jack Kerouac, and Pete McCarthy. Important characteristics of the structure of the autobiographical autoethnographic text include an origin story, family, gender, ethnicity, class: and the epiphany, the transformational moment or event which, at the time or retrospectively, appears to be loaded with meaning (Denzin, 2014). The epiphany reflects Turner’s (1986) concept of liminality, in which a person occupies a space and time in which personal change is imminent, but not yet realized. In Turner’s (1986) oft-repeated term, at the liminal moment, the subject is ‘betwixt and between’, neither occupying their previous place in the social structure nor yet elevated to a new one.

As noted earlier, criticisms of autoethnography include self-indulgence. With that in mind, I will attempt to illustrate a form of the epiphanic moment with a passage from an autobiographical text I wrote for a UK university lecturer’s trade magazine. The piece was written to be read, and perhaps enjoyed, for its own sake. It is far from the subject matters of trauma, personal crisis or social injustice that occupy many critical autoethnograpers, and this is deliberate. It illustrates one of Denzin’s (2014, p.53) categories of epiphany: the relived epiphany, the moment that seems, in recollection, to have been loaded with liminal significance, even though that did not seem to be evident at the time.

“I was 13. I’d grown from a small boy to a large man in barely a year, and my hammer-throwing skills had been honed by Derek of the spaghetti western moustache, who later coached the national team. The setting was Aldersley Stadium in Wolverhampton, and the day smelled of fresh grass in the summer sun. I spun in the circle, watched the hammer fly away in a lazy parabola, and heard a strange sound. It began as a low growl and rose in a polyphonic arc into an astonished cry. It was the crowd, far away in the stand. An announcer shouted through the tinny PA and was met with loud applause. I’d doubled the previous record. In my eidetic memory of that moment lies the ruination of my early life.Writing and authoethnography The rest of the 1970s tasted of bitter beer and cigarettes. I seldom missed training, but I was no longer troubled by other quotidian rituals such as doing my homework, getting a haircut, going to lessons regularly, staying in for a quiet evening, going to bed at a reasonable hour, reading books, staying out of pubs. I was a Titan among my puny pubescent peers, for I was a Hero. A Sporting Hero. Even the local newspaper, the Staffordshire Evening Sentinel, joined in the laudations and marked my elevation into the tiny world of hammer heroes with the clunkily alliterative headline “Hackley Hammers Record”. (Hackley, ‘Hammer Time Blues’, THES, 2013).

The epiphanic moment in autoethnography is an autobiographic construction. Most lives have many such moments, and subsequent experience and reflection might change the view of which were significant, and which were, after all, not significant at all. In written biography, the epiphanic moment serves as a literary device that aids in storytelling.  Family, and class, all play an important part in locating autoethnographies, and I choose in this piece to leave those untouched. The magazine typically publishes pieces that are a performance of professional earnestness, raising issues of import in education policy and practice. This feature was part of a series in which academics reflect on a personal hobby or interest, and I chose to write in a vein that is a counterpoint to a literary performance of professional poise. It was a performance of un-earnestness, intended as a lighter counterpoint to the over-earnestness of academic discourse. The hammer throw might not seem an ideal case of an epiphanic moment, but it does entail some features of Turner’s (1986) characteristics for existential liminality. The hammer throw is a heavily ritualized performance in track and field athletics. It, and the hammer throwers, are set apart from the other athletes in a sub-cultural subset, somehow marginal to the more glamorous and popular runners, jumpers and even other throwers. The piece evokes school sports and their role in the nascent development of male identity, and it written in a way that is intended to be fun, even though the writing style may be a little over-sugared for some tastes. It invites many of the criticisms that are leveled at autoethnography in general, and I leave the reader to decide whether reading it has just wasted a minute of their life. For my part, in this and in similar autoethnographic contributions in magazines and refereed journals, I have performed a style of writing that I hope problematises conventional views of the scope and tone of academic marketing and consumer research and writing. I also hope that it might resonate with someone and make them smile, even if they have the good sense not to cite it.

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Concluding comment

For many social scientists, science is the task of gaining agreement on general principles, even though this may entail an order of reductionism. It matters not that such research fails to capture the human condition, because that is the task of art. On such a view, interpretive social science methods like autoethnography confuse the two ends, the scientific, and the humanistic. An alternative view is that interpretive work can re-inscribe social science with a sense of meaning and ethics that has been lost in so much of our self-referential published research, and that it can re-connect it to culture. Autoethnography represents one such approach to attempting to invest social research with meaning, humanity and zest, capturing both the scientific values of truth, and the human need for meaning.

Maddox Smith

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