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Ethnography and Autoethnography: Sociological Methods

Editorial Note:

This article on the sociological research methods of ethnography and autoethnography is being published on behalf of Applied Worldwide’s 2021 student essay competition. Students were prompted to respond to the question, “Why is sociology important?” We have awarded 17 finalists from all over the world, and we published these essays over the course of a couple weeks.

This essay was written by Alyssa Goodreau from The University of Tampa in Florida, US. This essay received a third place award. We had a really great turnout and would like to thank everyone who submitted an essay. We received a wide variety of creative interpretations and responses, so browse our essay directory!

Alyssa Goodreau

Sociology is a vast subject that can help explain the world around us. Through this field, we have gained new theories, concepts, and types of research, all that which give name to our experiences. A specific example of this that can be deemed important is ethnography and autoethnography. Both of these areas have the ability to help researchers better understand feelings while connecting a human response to research, which together can help with coping and understanding the ‘why’ behind real world problems.

What is Ethnography and Autoethnography?

Ethnography is a type of research that is able to focus on the point of view of a subject being studied. In comparison, autoethnography is: “… an emerging qualitative research method that allows the author to write in a highly personalized style, drawing on his or her experience to extend understanding about a societal phenomenon,” (Wall, 2006, p. 1). Autoethnography takes ethnography one step further through utilizing a personal experience interwoven into a research topic.

During my time at The University of Tampa while enrolled in a sociological qualitative research course, I had the opportunity to learn more about ethnography and autoethnography. As an example, one of the key readings we studied was The Ethnographic I by Carolyn Ellis. After discussion and a better grasp of these studies, I was also given the chance to participate in my own autoethnographic research. Through this course and experience, my understanding yet questioning of sociology was heightened; and the ways researchers are able to study people and explore a human experience.

Ethnography and Autoethnography Applied to the COVID-19 Pandemic

The completed result of my semester long research involved a methodological thinking outline including research interests and questions, peer reviewed sources, interviewing, coding, and the use of autoethnography. The main topic I focused on was the COVID-19 pandemic as it occurred.

This was because as we first developed our research questions together, the pandemic started and shifted several studies and how we wanted to approach it. I was able to use a student’s perspective as the world unraveled around me, starting from having something small such as Spring Break cancelled, followed by our entire semester being moved online, grocery stores becoming empty, and an overall fear of the unknown.

I also had a parent who was high-risk for the virus and having to see them in fear of something they cannot control, and possible death, was extremely emotional creating an overall sense of dread. Autoethnography in a sense helped me escape this, as this new academic perspective is personal enough that I could face these feelings, but more indirectly while viewing myself in the third-person.

Looking back, I value the information and viewpoint I gained through this experience and specifically the coping mechanism autoethnography provided me. I was able to take a step back through the confusion, worry and fear, while instead taking a speculative point of view. At the same time, I could still connect my feelings to those around me, but better see why I was feeling a certain way and know what was causing it. Overall, I believe autoethnography can be useful for this reason and getting a better grasp on one’s emotions during a difficult time.

Autoethnography and Personal Issues

Although the COVID-19 pandemic was the most prominent issue I faced the past year, while completing my autoethnography I did face other personal issues including a grandparent entering a nursing home, losing our apartment, and having to move while enduring an unstable climate. This can help show the versatility of autoethnography, and that there does not need to be a ‘big’ emergency issue that is studied, because in the long run it is the smaller inconveniences that impact human’s daily lives.

Ethnography and Interactions

Lastly, through ethnography, being able to better understand one’s reactions and feelings can also be useful in deciphering other perspectives and what could have caused them or a certain response. During a chaotic time like the COVID-19 pandemic, there are a range of emotions and reactions from the general public that at first may seem off or incorrect, including those who may believe the virus is fake, those who believe it is not serious and others are overreacting, or it being a type of conspiracy.

Right or wrong, there are a reason for these responses that ethnography can focus on due to the nature of them. It emphasizes the human aspect of research and that to get answers, we sometimes need these experiences to occur in the first place. When using the example of a pandemic, the use of ethnography for studying a person’s point of view can be one of the best explanations for the lived experiences faced as it happens.

Final Considerations on Ethnography and Autoethnography

Together, autoethnography and ethnography both helped me to understand exactly what it is was like to go through a period of unknown and provide a release. This knowledge is what we normally learn or hear about in sociology but can never really imagine the lived experience. Although the pandemic is still occurring, this experience greatly helped me throughout the process, and I was able to learn valuable life skills and a better understanding of myself moving forward.


Wall, S. (2006). An autoethnography on learning about autoethnography. Sage Journals, 146-60.