Getting Marginalized Voices Into the Academic Conversation
I am crazy, hear me roar!
Well, maybe not exactly, but I am mentally ill, and I share my story any chance I get. I’ve been a bit surprised by who has ended up choosing to hear my voice.
Mental illness was very much on my mind while I was working on my Master of Psychiatric Nursing degree. I was unwell for much of the time that I was doing grad school, and there were times when I had to do homework while hospitalized for depression on the psych ward. As I progressed through the degree program and was trying to figure out what to focus my thesis research on, I stumbled across a relatively new methodology called autoethnography, and the proverbial light bulb went on over my head; this was how I could make my mental illness voice heard in a very profound way.
While traditional research has required that the researcher‘s’s self be as far removed from the research as possible in order to minimize bias, some fields of study have embraced the value of subjectivity, including feminist and queer research. These researchers recognize that the self can actually make the research more powerful.
Autoethnography is one way of doing subjective research, and it can be broken down into its three components: auto (self), ethno (culture), and graphy (study). It uses both an inward and an outward lens to situate personal experience within the broader context of cultural influences, and in doing so blurs the distinction between self and culture.
It’s a method that is heavily influenced by social constructionist theory, with argues that reality as we experience and interpret it is constructed within the social framework. This really resonated with me, as many of the challenges I experienced as a result of my illness stemmed more from social views around mental illness than the actual symptoms I experienced. This isn’t about mental illness not being real; it’s about how our experience and interpretation of illness is shaped by our social context.
As a budding autoethnographer, my job was to tell self-stories in order to gain a better understanding of the social contexts in which those stories occurred. The idea of researcher neutrality is actively rejected, and subjectivity is seen as essential to truly understand human experience. This makes a lot of sense; After all, if there was one thing I’ve learned because of my illness, it’s that no outsider would ever be able to truly understand what I experienced, which meant I was in the best position to write about what that experience feels like.
While the higher levels of academia are still largely populated by those in positions of social privilege, the growth in the number of autoethnographic papers published shows that there are people in the academic world who are willing to explore their own diverse experiences related to such elements as chronic illness, race, gender, and sexuality. These groundbreaking researchers are prepared to share their stories within a realm not necessarily known for its tolerance of breaking rank. There are also journal editors willing to publish this kind of transformational research, and other academics supporting the work through the peer review step in getting published. It means that the establishment and the ivory tower are beginning to recognize intersectionality that characterizes so many lives.
The more mainstream that these sorts of subjective research methods become, the easier it will be for graduate students from marginalized backgrounds to find thesis committees that will support the pursuit of this type of research. Undergraduate students may be inspired to consider pursuing graduate work if they’re able to support their undergrad assignments with the voices of researchers writing about life experiences similar to their own. The more accessible it is to conduct research, the greater the likelihood that the body of research literature will contain more representative voices. Autoethnographic research is accessible in a way that many other methods are not, and disability, lack of funding, or lack of institutional support do not necessarily have to stand in the way of engaging in this type of research.
On my own thesis committee, only one of the three members was familiar with autoethnography, but they were all highly supportive of my desire to explore my illness voice and use it to challenge stigma. During my thesis defense, I stood up in front of my committee, the dean, and various faculty members and I talked about being a nurse with a mental illness. I shared what it’s like to be broken, and to use that experience to grow. I chose to be vulnerable when my degree depended on it, and in the end got nothing but positive feedback for that.
As a result of my thesis work, I had a paper published in a major nursing journal advocating for the use of autoethnography in nursing research. Two mental health nursing journals published papers I’d written about stigma my experiences of stigma and my identity struggles in relation to my mental illness. That means that those two journal editors and multiple peer reviewers thought that my voice and my story belonged in the academic discourse. I don’t have a doctorate or an academic appointment at a university, but that doesn’t mean I can’t add to the academic body of knowledge. One of my greatest hopes is that students will come across my work and realize that their own illness stories also have a place in the academic world.
Traumatic experiences are fertile ground for autoethnographic inquiry. This process can be therapeutic and a way to engage in re-storying. Researcher Sophie Tamas (2009) described described this as writing “close to the bone”, explaining that, “If we are sitting in the gore and confusion of our own suffering, my sane, readable account of loss may reinforce the expectation that our trauma ought to make sense, and if it doesn’t we must somehow be failing.”
My own experiences of trauma have revolved around workplace bullying. I’ve had a paper on the topic sitting mostly completed on my computer for the last 2 years. As much as I’ve been able to find the courage to share my illness story, the idea of putting forward a paper about bullying for peer review is absolutely terrifying. I hope that at some point I’ll be able to push through that fear barrier and move forward, but I’m just not quite there yet.
Our stories have value, and autoethnography offers a way to look at elements of human experience that might otherwise be inaccessible (Vryan, 2006). The more taboo or stigmatized the topic, the more important it is that we tell our stories in as many ways as possible. Doing so as researchers offers much greater control and avoids the pitfalls of trying to overcome shame and guilt that may be associated with being a research participant (Vryan, 2006). Shame thrives in silence, but silence does not have to be inevitable.
I have a chronic mental illness, and I have a voice that I’m going to use. Academia is becoming increasingly open to hearing that voice, and that’s exciting for all of us living on the margins. The more that we write about our marginalized experiences, the more they will become part of the broader social (and academic) discourse. The idea of taking the academic world by storm is something I find very appealing, because when marginalized perspectives appear in academic journals, students at all levels can draw on that to support writing about their own unique positions. We can make a difference; we just have to be brave enough to put ourselves out there.
Tamas, S. (2009). Writing and righting trauma: Troubling the autoethnographic voice. Forum: Qualitative Social Researh, 10(1), article 22.
Vryan, K. (2006). Expanding analytic autoethnography and enhancing its potential. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 35(4), 405–409. doi:10.1177/0891241606286977