What’s in a Diary? An Autoethnographic Tale about Self-Narratives

IMG_20180628_115228David Primo is PhD candidate in Social Sciences at the University of Padua, and Visiting PhD at ICS-ULisboa.

Can the private life of a researcher be of scientific interest? A long-standing tradition of research inspired by the (neo)positivist scientific research maintains the idea that the subjectivity of the researcher is a disturbing element that should be erased. Nonetheless, the constructionist turn in social and human sciences undermined the idea that the researcher can be a neutral observer.

Autoethnography develops the non-neutrality of the researcher and claims that personal experiences could be a starting point of the investigation of the cultural context. Indeed, a common idea shared by different approaches to autoethnography is that the awareness about one’s own symbolic and material position in society can shed a light on the power dynamics which are at play in different situations.

But what is Autoethnography?


Chang (2008, p. 43) affirms that “stemming from the field of anthropology, autoethnography shares the storytelling feature with other genres of self-narrative, but transcends mere narration of the self to engage in cultural analysis & interpretation”. Therefore, what defines this method is the explicit intent to find a link between personal experiences and cultural processes.

The first time I wrote “autoethnography” in a draft of my PhD project, I was not clear about its meaning. That word filled my mind with ideas but, at the same time, it paralyzed my hands. I have been writing poetry since I was 14 years old, and the panic of not knowing what to write in front of a blank page has always been an unbearable torture to me. For this reason, immediately after having bought three pretty notebooks – one for the field notes, one as a research diary and one for the autoethnography – I began studying obsessively all the texts I could find on the subject.

I sought reassurance from a (seemingly) clear technique that could tell me what to write in each of the three diaries and how to analyse it. I wanted the diary to be an ally of my (tiny) positivist side. This was the first step in the creation of a fictional split between me-as-researcher, and me-in-my-daily-life, but also between me, the reflexive researcher, and field, so dreadfully chaotic.

Not surprisingly, my hyper-technical attitude clashed with the indocility of writing: before my eyes, the three notebooks imploded one into the other. The me-as-researcher uncertainly floated among them, trying to figure out a criterion to determine how to differentiate the content of each notebook. At the same time, the me-as-writer was tormented by hands that refused to write in such a disintegrated way. I struggled a lot to keep on: each word weighed a hundred pounds, and the idea that I had to write gave me an upset stomach. I abandoned the autoethnographic diary for two months, we were like a middle-class couple during an in-house separation.

What a shame, my filthy little secret was that I was not able to write the same kind of text that I asked the participant of my research: a diary. When I became aware of my hypocrisy, I understood the meaning of the postmodern conceptualization of reflexivity as temporary and fragmentary: reflexivity is not a matter of self-discipline, nor an ability which a researcher can fully control, it is rather a precarious state which arises in situations that challenge the researcher’s identity.

Autoethnography is neither an aseptic practice nor a mere matter of “content”: the emotional bond between the researcher and the diary is of primal importance. Writing a diary allows a continual reworking of one’s own biography but, in that way, the diary shows the contradictory nature of self-narratives. Although these contradictions can be very frustrating, the way we, as researchers, manage them can provide us with thought-provoking insights about the processes involved in the identity work.

For example, what is the meaning of my attempt to achieve a watertight compartmentalisation of the three notebooks? When I was in high school, writing a diary was considered a feminine practice: I had to hide that I enjoyed writing poems, in order to avoid being physically or verbally attacked. Although I have been in GLBTQ+ activism for several years, my relationship with the diary still testified to what extent I incorporated the “be masculine” imperative, which revealed itself in my attempt to establish an accurate control over my writing style.

It is impossible to put a clear-cut distinction between ethnography and autoethnography. Even when the boundary is artificially created by using separate diaries, their threshold is porous. Surely autoethnography requires an extensive (and dangerous) level of self-disclosure, but the flourishing of concepts and theories about the relevance of reflexivity in the research process testifies that a certain level of self-disclosure should pertain to social and human sciences in general.

A researcher’s diary is a material, discursive, emotional and relational “environment”, and it relates not only to the fieldwork in a strict sense but also to the complex and fragmentary nature of the sense-making processes in the everyday life. In other words, each research project, whether ethnographic or autoethnographic, takes place in an extended field in which multiple self-narratives interweave.




Ero il mare ed ero la spiaggia,

la nave ed il naufrago,

la mia furia era ovunque,

e ovunque il mio cammino mi opprimeva.

Ero Dio ed ero l’infamia,

ho colonizzato i sette mari

e attraversato i mille strati dell’inferno.

Ero il Dio dell’infamia,

e, per questo, mi fu proibito

di ricordare.

Ero il verso senza parola,

il sussulto di un’esplosione siderale.

Quando mi sono visto allo specchio,

il mio volto è esploso

in una costellazione di oggetti parziali.

E sono stato tutte le cose,

e non sono stato nulla,

e sono stato eterno,

e non ho mai saputo il mio nome.

Ho vagato per la città,

e son diventato la città stessa:

Ho sentito le strade muoversi

fra le mie ossa.

Sono stato donna,

sono stato uomo,

ancora e ancora,

altre mille volte:

mi son partorito e sono morto.

Sono rinato all’infinito,

e all’infinito la mia bocca

ha moltiplicato i suoi piani,

raggiungendo la soglia della terza


La gravità mi ha afferrato

e son diventato un solco sulla carta:




I was the sea and I was the beach,

the ship and the shipwrecked,

my fury was everywhere,

and everywhere my path oppressed me.

I was God and I was infamy,

I colonized the seven seas

and crossed through the thousand layers of hell.

I was the God of infamy,

and, for this reason, I was forbidden

to remember.

I was the sound without words,

the jolt of a sidereal explosion.

When I saw myself in the mirror,

my face exploded

in a constellation of partial objects.

And I have been all the things,

and I have been nothing,

and I have been eternal,

and I have never known my name.

I wandered around the city,

and I became the city itself:

I felt the streets moving

through my bones

I have been a woman,

I have been a man,

again and again,

a thousand times:

I gave birth to myself and I died.

I endlessly reborn,

and endlessly my mouth

multiplied his plateaus

reaching the threshold of the third


Gravity grabbed me

and I became a furrow on the paper:


Cheng, H. (2008). Autoethnography as Method. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Como citar este artigo: Primo, David (2018) What’s in a Diary? An Autoethnographic Tale about Self-NarrativesLife Research Group Blog, ICS-Lisboa, https://liferesearchgroup.wordpress.com/2018/06/27 27 de Junho (Acedido a xx/xx/xx)

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