The Handbook as a Rite of Passage

A faculty member in my office recently was curious about a book sitting on my desk—Handbook of Autoethnography.

“What is autoethnography?” he asked.

“Well, you know what an ethnography is?”

“Yes.”

“And you know about autobiography?”

“Yes.”

“Put them together and you have autoethnography, generally speaking, turning the tools of ethnography on oneself.”

I’m certain my colleague could have reasoned that out for himself, but more interesting was how this clearly created a cognitive dissonance moment for him as his nonverbal response was not positive. Certainly his first instinct was to dismiss the entire thing out of hand. Any time we encounter a previously unfamiliar concept within which we sense the ability to disrupt the way we think about something central to our daily life and work (in this case, social science research), our first impulse can often be to want to destroy the disruptive concept before it metastasizes.

And I have no doubt if it had been a copy of an article about autoethnography sitting on my desk, he would have done exactly that, especially if it were an article in any journal short of the most prestigious of publications.

But dang, this was a HANDBOOK! Have you seen this thing? It’s over 700 pages! The only thing that could have made it better would have been the hardback copy of the handbook, but I couldn’t justify the extra hundred dollars or so for a personal copy of something like that.

It is a long, slow journey toward mythological respectability for tools such as autoethnography. It starts with preliminary concept papers and early efforts to utilize the tool. Next comes arguments and debate about value—spirited convention sessions followed by conversations over spirits in conference hotel bars. Eventually a group like AERA will establish a committee that leads to a study group that prepares and vets a statement on evaluating the quality of scholarship produced through the methodology.

It’s a long, slow journey toward a handbook. The existence of a handbook stands as evidence of methodological acceptance, grudging, perhaps, but battles have been fought and a beachhead has been established. Doctoral students and junior professors may now move forward with their research plans without having to first establish the viability of their methodology. The battles will now move on to different battlefields.

Somewhere down the line, we can only hope our word processors will not continue to attempt to autocorrect or underline “autoethnography” in red. Perhaps that is the last hurdle of respect to clear.

Could someone tell Microsoft a handbook was published in 2015?

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