The Perils, Politics, and Economics of Publishing Autoethnography

Text and Performance Quarterly recently featured my essay “Homo-work,” wherein I discuss the politics of “peri-performativity.” Peri-performativity, as I explain in the article, “highlights what cannot be uttered in a particular culture and notes the discursive lengths some people travel to describe marginalization” (62). I go on to argue that “peri-performativity is a meta-epistemological act that aims to unpack taken-for-granted, routinized savoir, or ‘discursive conditions that are necessary for the development of connaisance’ (Gutting 251), where connaisance, in Foucaultian terms, refers to ‘formal bodies of knowledge such as scientific books, philosophical theories, and religious justifications'” (Scheurich and McKenzie 846). In the essay, I chronicle some of my struggles publishing scholarship that others may find obscene, unnecessary, and unserious. I even include an email correspondence where editors challenged the worth of a particular qualitative account because the data included HOMOsexually explicit language. I end the essay with a declaration: “If peri-performative speech theorizes articulations that may not be uttered in specific spaces, Communication scholars are perfectly positioned to critique our own performative practices.” I then quickly bemoan the fact that Communication Education won’t publish qualitative research.

I am especially frustrated by journals that won’t even consider autoethnography, a mode of inquiry that is  beloved by scholars from historically marginalized groups.  I, for example, understand why gay men are drawn to narrative-based studies. Quantitative reasoning has resulted in Kinsey scales and other objectifying discourses that, for decades, provided the proof of the truth of anti-gay animus. I won’t suggest that all people who deny the worth of autoethnography are homophobic. That’s not a claim I believe. I will, however, argue that the marginalization of that specific mode of cultural criticism is intimately connected to the same sort of routinized, systemic impulses that devalue and dismiss many of the people who author autoethnography.

I think it’s important to document institutional policies and practices that block and conceal, to discuss grids of intelligibility that allow some to speak and demand others remain silent. My aim in this post is to open discussion, not shut it down.

I recently submitted an autoethnographic essay to Qualitative Health Research. The piece details my experiences with OCD. The essay also makes significant contributions to qualitative research methodologies, whether or not they take the form of autoethnography. I selected this particular journal because it recently featured a friend’s autoethnographic explication of OCD. One week after I submitted the paper, I received the following email from Janice Morse, the journal editor:

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I was flabbergasted by her response. An outright dismissal of the essay? The piece wouldn’t even been sent out for review? I was at the gym but felt compelled to immediately respond to the decision. I wrote, “Wow.  A qualitative journal that’s published auto on this very topic won’t even consider a project because it’s autoethnography.  I’m at a loss.  Truly.”

After I got home, I typed a more thoughtful reaction and sent it to Dr. Morse. Here’s what I said:

Dear Dr. Morse, 

I apologize for the brevity of my last message. I was at the gym and responding to you on my iPhone. I’m disappointed to hear that QHR won’t even consider the piece because of the particular qualitative method I employed. The methodological contributions I make in the piece are not unique to autoethnography and might be systematically deployed by anyone utilizing qualitative methods to study mental illness. 

The purpose of this email isn’t to make you reconsider an essay that, in my estimation, was never given fair consideration, but rather to encourage you to reconsider an editorial policy I believe doesn’t service QHR’s readership. I submitted to QHR precisely because, in 2010, the journal featured Catherine Brook’s outstanding autoethnographic exploration of OCD. That essay was the most read article in your journal upon its release and remained among the top 20 most read essays in QHR for the following two years. 

I’m sensitive to journals being a good fit for my scholarship. I would, for example, not submit autoethnography to a journal deeply entrenched in quantitative, post-positivistic reasoning. Not only was I careful to make sure my essay was appropriate for QHR, I was EXCITED to submit the piece to you. It’s seems unfortunate to categorically deny what might be, in the eyes of reviewers, solid, important qualitative research consistent with topics and methodologies already featured in the journal.

Again, my aim isn’t to have you modify your decision on my piece. My only intention is to defend an often misunderstood and maligned method that most certainly deserves consideration in a journal that features “qualitative research” in its title.

Best,

Ragan

It’s been over a week, and I still haven’t heard back from her, nor do I expect to. What a shame, and what a horrible editorial policy. I’m a reviewer and serve on a few editorial boards, but I have no idea how these rules are negotiated. What type of conversation transpires, if any? While we can’t force editors to explain unfair and unnecessary editorial decisions, we can document our responses to them. This, after all, is peri-performativity in action.

One closing note: She encouraged me to submit the essay to Qualitative Inquiry, which requires authors to pay a submission fee. Why in the world would I PAY to have a journal PROFIT OFF OF MY WORK? The Denzin journals (like QI), from what I can tell, are all pay-to-submit. These are also some of the primary outlets from which Communication scholars who do autoethnography may publish their work. Perils. Politics. Economics.