Extreme navel-gazing: when anthropology becomes autoethnography
Siew-Peng Lee (Brunel University London)
Paper short abstract:
This anthropologist imagines how different her PhD data might have been had she been the older respondent giving the answers. By reflecting on theoretical and methodological issues, she exposes limitations of traditional ethnography. Autoethnography suggests that an action perspective is imperative.
Paper long abstract:
Classical anthropological studies often involve researchers inserting themselves into an 'Other' situation through participant observation. By definition, those of the 'wrong' gender, age, class, language ability, etc. are excluded from participating/observing. This paper, based on old fieldwork data amongst older migrant Chinese living in sheltered housing in England, presents some reflections on how being an older researcher helped in entering and remaining in the field. Theoretically I realized that - 15 years later - the same research data could be interpreted quite differently simply because my personal status had changed from 30-something spinster to being a wife and mother. Methodologically I imagine how different my data might have been if I were the older respondent giving the answers as a co-resident (hence autoethnography). What sorts of answers would I give a much younger researcher? How does this address the issue of 'studying up' (Nader 1969) when respondents think researchers are quite beneath their association, in this case because of age? By turning the research lens around, we can expose a few limitations of traditional ethnography. It becomes imperative - and urgent - that our research should inform policy. We are no more studying 'them', but 'us'. Most scholars of ageing find it difficult to 'return to the field'. Most of my key respondents have died. On the upside, it becomes inevitable that we eventually begin to study ourselves: there is no retiring for ageing scholars of ageing.
Imagining an old future: anthropological perspectives on age and ageing