“Work–Life Balance?: An Autoethnographic Exploration of Everyday Home–Work Dynamics” by Laurie Cohen, Joanne Duberley, and Gill Musson was one of the top downloaded articles in the Journal of Management Inquiry for 2009.
The authors have provided us with some background for the article:
This paper was something of a departure for the three of us. None of us had done auto-ethnographic work before, and we were worried that it might seem rather self-indulgent. Also, like Delamont (2007), we didn’t think that we made especially interesting research subjects! However, the circumstances that we found ourselves in led us to this approach – and once there, we found it extremely illuminating and rewarding, though also very challenging in a range of ways. Here’s what happened.
We had agreed to write a book chapter on our experiences as working mothers. We thought this would be a fascinating thing to do as our ages span 20 years, with 10 years between Jo and Laurie, and 10 between Laurie and Gill, and our children fall into the same pattern. At the time we wrote the chapter Gill’s children were in their mid-to-late 20s, Laurie’s in their mid-teens and Jo’s son was 7. So, although we had worked together in the same university department for several years, the differences in our ages meant that our lifeworlds and the social contexts in which we were positioned varied significantly – especially with respect to norms and expectations around work and motherhood. The similarities and differences in our life experiences made us think that we would have something quite useful to say. Also, in our other research we had all dipped our fingers in the literature on work/home dynamics and we were keen to learn more about it. In typical fashion, our first task was a literature review. We assigned tasks and responsibilities and got to work, agreeing to get together the following month to share ideas.
On the appointed day we met to rehearse the debates, controversies and issues that had emerged in our reading. But we all felt rather lacklustre. We understood what the various writers were telling us, but for some reason we weren’t that excited by it. Although work/home dynamics was something that challenged us each and every day, there seemed to be something missing. It’s not that the research was not of high quality or that there were not rich and insightful case studies to pore over, but rather, it just didn’t resonate with our experiences. We had been friends and colleagues for many years and had chatted continually over that time about our lives as mothers and workers but the literature somehow didn’t seem to capture our experience.
Although we had a book chapter to write and a pretty strict deadline to write it by, our conversation took a detour. Instead of managing motherhood, we spoke of balance, what if anything it meant in our lives and how the literature helped us (or not) to understand it better. We spoke of the fleeting instances in which we experienced some version of balance, and the many and varied ways in which we felt ‘unbalanced’ – indeed almost on a daily basis. We came to realise that the idea of balance was a conceptual hook we could use to explore our experiences of trying to manage home and work dynamics and that we might be able to offer something different to other theorists in this area if we used autoethnography to do this.
Over the next months we had extensive – and quite amazing – email conversations which one of us would initiate, and the others would join in on, commenting, critiquing, adding examples of our own. These conversations were punctuated by intermittent face-to-face meetings. Working through printouts of the emails, we began to analyse our data, identifying key themes, drafting analytical templates, developing anticipated avenues of inquiry and forging into new areas that we never expected. Much like any other research project really. Only the difference was that we were at once respondents and analysts, both telling and interpreting the stories. At times we all three felt that this worked really well – because we were all there we could discuss what we really meant, checking out our understandings against others’ interpretations. But it was also challenging. Because we shared not only this particular research experience, but were also inextricably tangled up in each others’ pasts, we were able to remind each other of things that had happened in the past and offer alternative perspectives on one another’s retrospective accounts. This was not always a comfortable experience!
Eventually we reached a point where we had developed a framework which we thought added something to the existing literature and worked well enough to be submitted to JMI. We were apprehensive about our method and how it would be received, but confident that our collaborative auto-ethnographic approach had succeeded in doing what we wanted it to do – illuminating aspects of the experience of home/work dynamics that we felt were still murky and obscure. We were very keen to get some feedback from our peers, to see if they agreed. Sally Maitlis, our action editor at JMI and her 3 reviewers offered incredibly valuable guidance, encouraging us to be more explicit about where our ideas developed the existing literature in this area and reflect further on our approach. Whilst we wouldn’t claim to be expert autoethnographers, we feel we have learned a lot from this experience that helps us to understand our own and others’ experiences of managing work and home and also what we consider to be data and how we might access other people’s experiences through interviews and other methods in the future.