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The ethics of autoethnography


This article queries the place of autoethnography in the study of International Relations as it relates to questions of truth, power, and ethics. The traditional denial of the authorial presence of the self in IR scholarship has been increasingly challenged in recent years, and autoethnography is perhaps the most obvious example of this. This article utilises autoethnography to explore some of the pitfalls and dilemmas associated with the approach – particularly the dangers surrounding ‘standpoint’ epistemologies, and the need to continue to distinguish between scholarship and storytelling. The article does not dismiss these concerns, but seeks to illustrate the ways in which the discipline is already engaged in storytelling as it narrates its own history and development. At the same time, the article seeks to ‘guard against a generation of novelists’ whose training would inevitably devolve into a question of crafting the ‘prettiest sentence.’ Mindful of these concerns, the article nevertheless seeks to demonstrate the ethical value of autoethnography in its exploration of the limitations of academic voice and its impact on those we write, the truths we are able to recognise and transcribe, and the ways in which the academic voice silences the self, who is forced to hide or minimise the often very personal motivations for engaging in IR scholarship. It argues that purposeful autoethnography should have a place among the diverse approaches to IR.

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1 Michael Walzer employs this notion as a benchmark for humanitarian military intervention in Just and Unjust Wars (New York: Basic Books, 2000) .

2 ‘The United Nations Protection Force’.

3 A 1999 Toronto Star article noted that ‘Canadian peacekeepers were suspected of being paid cash to smuggle refugees across no-man's land in war-torn Bosnia in 1994, confidential military documents show […] No charges were ever laid because no witnesses could be found.’ Thompson, Allan, ‘Canadian Troops Smuggled Bosnian Refugees, Memos Say’, Toronto Star (28 November 1999) .

4 I did not record Stojan Sokolović's words that night. I have written here my impression of what he said to me; the feeling it left with me that I had failed incontrovertibly. Perhaps some scholars would charge my ‘methodology’ as suspect, but I invite anyone who has ever interviewed another human being to dare say that she herself has not served as the sole interpreter of the significance of words captured on tiny little audiocassettes and manipulated them to fit carefully into the text she has crafted around the interview – or the text which has itself crafted the interview and the interview's content. We craft these statements to serve our own purposes – we tease them out in ways that serve us – to underwrite and legitimise our own intellectual projects and projections. I do not pretend to have spoken for Stojan Sokolović – instead, I have rendered the substance of what I heard in his words, what it meant for my scholarship, and for my ability to be responsible. I have rendered what I heard in the charge – and so the translation is mine (as all translation invariably is and will ever be). I make no apologies for this. It is the state in which all of us who write necessarily find ourselves.

5 Dominguez, Virginia, ‘Towards a Politics of Love and Rescue’, Cultural Anthropology, 15:3 (2000) .

6 Some anthropologists explicitly address questions of intimacy or friendship that arise in the course of fieldwork, and specifically query the ethics of relationality in research. For an overview of this literature, see Ellis, Carolyn, ‘Telling Secrets, Revealing Lives: Relational Ethics in Research with Intimate Others’, Qualitative Inquiry, 13:1 (2007), pp. 329 .

7 Ashley, Richard, ‘The Achievements of Post-Structuralism’, in Smith, Steve, Booth, Ken, and Zalewski, Marysia (eds), International Theory: Positivism and Beyond (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 241 , parentheses added.

8 This point also raises the question of the role of the author as knower. Recent developments on autoethnography from a methodological perspective have focused on poststructural interpretations of the self-as-author in an attempt to demonstrate the fragmentation and ultimate impossibility of a unitary, knowable/knowing, authorial subject. Who is it, then, who sees, divines, and notices? For an overview of these developments and their impact on writing autoethnography, see Gannon, Susanne, ‘The (Im)Possibilities of Writing the Self: French Poststructural Theory and Autoethnography’, Critical Methodologies, 6:4 (2006), pp. 474495 . It is worth stressing here that, in my view, the authorial self recognises her inherent inadequacy through the challenge that is posed to her by others. In other words, this fragmentation is an inherently relational one; hence, the necessity of the charge leveled against me by Stojan Sokolović.

9 I stress this point despite the fact that some Anthropologists are increasingly willing to understand their own ethnographic writing as similar in form to novels. See Ellis, Carolyn, The Autoethnographic I: A Methodological Novel About Autoethnography (Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira) 2004 . If I were a novelist, I would write novels, and not International Relations theory. However, we also need to acknowledge the erosion of boundaries that critical approaches have opened up over the last two decades, and to appreciate that the lines we live by may no longer have either salience or meaning for the social worlds we study. We are in a contested space in this regard, and the expansion of critical approaches provides significant evidence of this. I am not sure where or how or if these lines should be redrawn. I invite others to continue this exploration.

10 In my anecdotal experience, critical theories of IR are equally problematic in this respect. ‘Critical’ students regularly work to demolish one another in seminars and conferences for not being ‘critical’ enough, or for having blasphemously misunderstood very difficult and dense philosophers, such as Derrida, Foucault, Levinas, Butler, or Spivak.

11 Jantzen, Grace M., Becoming Divine: Towards a Feminist Philosophy of Religion (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1998), p. 70 .

12 Roxanne Doty, ‘Maladies of Our Souls: Identity and Voice in the Writing of Academic International Relations’, Distinguished Critical Thinkers Seminar, York Centre for International and Security Studies, York University, Toronto (15 March 2004).

13 See particularly ‘Crossroads of Death’, in Dauphinee, Elizabeth and Masters, Cristina, (eds), The Logics of Biopower and the War on Terror: Living, Dying, Surviving (New York: Palgrave, 2006) ; and ‘Fronteras Compasivas and the Ethics of Unconditional Hospitality’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 35:1 (2006).

14 Ellen Strain explores this phenomenon in Public Places, Private Journeys: Ethnography, Entertainment, and the Tourist Gaze (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003) .

15 It is worth mentioning here that it is institutionally impossible to conduct field research without ethics approval. Ethics approval requires a substantive research agenda in the form of a proposal, a methodology, and a clear sense of what will be asked of prospective informants, all of whom will have already been identified as members of a specific group, community, or organisation.

16 Beier, J. Marshall, International Relations in Uncommon Places: Indigeneity, Cosmology, and the Limits of International Theory (New York: Palgrave, 2005) .

17 The goal here cannot be to eradicate violence from scholarship entirely. As notes, John Caputo, ‘there is no pure non-violence, only degrees and economies of violence, some of which are more fruitful than others.’ Caputo, John D., ed., Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida (New York: Fordham University Press, 1997), p. 47 .

18 For an in-depth analysis of the silencing abjection associated with such categories of being, see Malkki, Liisa, ‘Speechless Emissaries: Refugees, Humanitarianism, and Dehistoricization’, Cultural Anthropology, 11:3 (1996), pp. 377404 .

19 Carol Cohn's ‘Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals’, Signs (1987), was a major breakthrough in the way we understand the role of language in IR.

20 Adams, Tony E., ‘A Review of Narrative Ethics’, Qualitative Inquiry, 14 (2008), p. 176 .

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid., p. 182.

23 Doty, Roxanne Lynn, ‘Maladies of Our Souls: Identity and Voice in the Writing of Academic International Relations’, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 17:2 (July 2004), p. 380 .

24 Ibid., p. 378.

25 See particularly, ‘Living, Dying, Surviving’, in Elizabeth Dauphinee and Cristina Masters (eds), The Logics of Biopower and the War on Terror.

26 Even if mainstream scholars don't want to acknowledge them, they cannot deny that the critical interventions of the 1980s formed a new trajectory in IR – one that was taken seriously by a great many scholars and that changed the face of the discipline in profound and unexpected ways.

27 Lingis, Alphonso, Foreign Bodies (New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 175 .

28 The Sokal Affair is a rather amusing and telling example to the contrary, however. In Sokal's own words, the hoax perpetrated on the editorial board of Social Text was intended to determine whether a reputable social science journal would ‘publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.' Despite the deception, Sokal insists that he did not ‘lie’. All of his quotations were verifiable – it was just that he strung them together into a nonsensical series of arguments in an effort to reveal what he considered to be a politically and scientifically dangerous trend in cultural studies away from any form of intersubjective or verifiable reality. In the context of his insistence that he did not ‘lie,’ however, Sokal did acknowledge the extent to which ‘professional communities operate largely on trust.’ See Sokal, Alan D., ‘A Physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies’, Lingua Franca (May/June 1996) .

29 There are a number of factors that make these questions very murky. It is, of course, not only the case that I have never seen a concentration camp in my life. It is also the case that concentration camps do not have to share the same characteristics in order to be acclaimed as concentration camps. I don't mean to make an unproblematic distinction, but there are valid principles through which distinctions can and should be made. It is also the case that some concentration camps, for example, the camp at Dachau, have been entirely reconstructed in order both to memorialise the events that took place there, and to attract visitors to the memorial. Dachau was almost completely levelled by invading Americans in 1945. David O'Donoghue writes that ‘Even the watchtowers had to be rebuilt, and the iron gate [at the entrance] is a reconstruction.’ ‘Holocaust Tourism’, Sunday Business Post (13 January 2002).

30 Campbell, David, ‘Atrocity, Memory, Photography: Imagine the Concentration Camps of Bosnia – the Case of ITN versus Living Marxism, part 2’, Journal of Human Rights, 1:2 (2002), pp. 143172 .

31 The case that Campbell explores is not the only well-known controversy that emerged from the Bosnian War. It is well-documented, and well-known that each ‘side’ claimed certain civilian deaths as their own, when in fact the dead in question belonged to a different national group. Add to this the murky question of perception – for example, the various articulations of Srebrenica as a ‘massacre’ and a ‘battle’. See Campbell, David, National Deconstruction: Violence, Identity, and Justice in Bosnia (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1998) .

32 Lingis, Alphonso, Trust (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), p. ix .

33 He would most certainly prefer me to use the word ‘trust’ here. But we make what I consider to be a false distinction in contemporary language between faith and trust. I am proceeding here as though they have the same meaning – relying on the Greek pistis – which is normally translated in religious texts as ‘faith’ but is translated in our field as ‘trust’. If the religious texts translated pistis as ‘trust’, and the academic texts as ‘faith’, we might find ourselves in a different philosophical position altogether.

34 Thomas Keenan writes that the emergence of what is other – unknown – always carries with it a certain risk in the conceptual space before identification takes place. The identification, incidentally, also contains a risk. We open ourselves to the possibility of otherness, even as that otherness may destroy us. See Keenan, Thomas, Fables of Responsibility: Aberrations and Predicaments in Ethics and Politics (Stanford University Press, 1997) . See also Dauphinee, Elizabeth, The Ethics of Researching War: Looking for Bosnia (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), p. 102 .

35 Resistance to this notion of faith in scholarship is significant and often compelling. But insofar as we attempt in IR to write about the apprehensible world in some meaningful way, it is interesting to me that this activity (in its current manifestation) is perceived as so fundamentally distinct from all the other aspects of our lives in which faith features prominently – we have faith in our spouses and partners, faith in our pensions (although perhaps a little less now), faith in the law and order that governs our functioning societies. We have faith in colleagues and students – that they will attend those meetings or complete those essays, and so on. We may have punitive mechanisms in place to address shortfalls in some of these areas, but an examination of the ways in which we rely on faith in our everyday lives (and the ways in which this sometimes fails us) should reveal to us the extent to which we are always at others' mercy.

36 After cruise missiles were dropped on the small mining town of Aleksinac, CNN correspondent Brent Sadler reported seeing ‘quite clearly that these were civilian homes […] I saw body parts inside these buildings.’ See ‘More Explosions in Yugoslavia; Civilian Casualties Reported’, 5 April 1999 available at: {} accessed on 5 April 1999.

37 Derrida asks, ‘[w]hat happens when one writes without seeing? A hand of the blind ventures forth alone or disconnected, in a poorly delimited space; it feels its way, it gropes, it caresses as much as it inscribes, trusting in the memory of signs and supplementing sight.’ See Derrida, Jacques, Memoirs of the Blind: The Self-Portrait and Other Ruins, trans. Brault, Pascale-Anne and Naas, Michael (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 3 .

38 For a pertinent discussion of the relationships here, see Little, Kenneth, ‘On Safari: The Visual Politics of a Tourist Representation’, in Howes, David (ed.), The Varieties of Sensory Experience: A Sourcebook in the Anthropology of the Senses (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991) ; Lisle, Debbie, ‘Consuming Danger: Reimagining the War/Tourism Divide’, Alternatives, 25:1 (2000) ; Geertz, Clifford, Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author (Stanford University Press: 1988) ; and Hutnyk, John, The Rumour of Calcutta: Tourism, Charity, and the Poverty of Representation (London and New Jersey: Zed Books, 1996) .

39 Levinas, Emmanuel, Totality and Infinity, trans. Lingis, Alphonso (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969), p. 21 .

40 Geertz, Works and Lives, p. 16.

41 See Dauphinee, Elizabeth, ‘The Politics of the Body in Pain: Reading the Ethics of Imagery’, Security Dialogue, 38:2 (June 2007) .

42 Hilberg, Raul, ‘I Was Not There’, in Lang, Berel (ed.), Writing and the Holocaust, (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1988), p. 25 .

43 Burke, Anthony, Beyond Security, Ethics, and Violence (New York: Routledge, 2007), p. 1 .

44 Adams, ‘A Review of Narrative Ethics’, p. 180.

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Review of International Studies
  • ISSN: 0260-2105
  • EISSN: 1469-9044
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