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Fact, fiction and something in between: narratives on authenticity


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Written by Dr Suzanne Nolan

In July 2018, the University of Suffolk will host the Storytelling Conference, a two-day event dedicated to the use of storytelling in research. Narrative methodologies have long been part of the qualitative researchers' toolkit, and we, as academics, seek to unpick others' stories to decipher something about the world and cultural groups in which we live.

One of my main research interests is on what people wear, and how people curate their appearance to create different identities for themselves. Choosing what to wear is an intentional expression of how we want the world to see us (King 2015).

Through our dress and appearance, we create stories about ourselves, whether intentionally or not, that other people use to make assumptions regarding our behaviour and attitude. A pinstriped business suit marks a successful and powerful professional; cropped blue hair with tattoos and piercings suggests to us a rebellious and unruly teenager.

To me, one of the most fascinating current debates is around what is means to 'look like' an academic. What does it mean to look like a lecturer and a researcher? Archer has presented some excellent work on how younger academics construct their professional identities (Archer 2008a, 2008b), and there is a growing body of research on how academic identities are mediated in the new, neoliberal higher education sector (for example, Cannizzo 2018). For me, though, there is a personal note to this research, a sense of discomfort: I am an Early Career Academic (ECA) attempting to find an authentic identity for myself within higher education.

As a qualitative researcher, this puts me very close to both my research and my research participants. Academia teaches us to be a 'distanced observer' to our research (Wall 2008), but how can I, as an ECA, distance myself from the experiences that I share with my participants?

Wall (2008) (among others) and Kara (2013) have both offered elegant solutions to this problem: using autoethnography and fiction as research methods. These works have prompted me to reframe my research into three parts – or Three Acts – in which I explore 'what being an academic 'looks like' from three different perspectives. The first and second 'Acts' - a fictional piece and an autoethnography – will be presented at the Storytelling Conference in July. The third 'Act' will be presented, along with some comments on the methodological process overall, at the Art of Management and Organization conference in Brighton, in August.

Here, I present a short extract from my first act, a fictional story that I will use to frame the discussions on identity, authenticity, and success.* The use of fiction can be used in the process of sense-making, and there is an inherent emphasis on authenticity, rather than 'objective truth' which allows us to better explore the nature of human emotions (Kara 2013, p. 79). With this in mind, I created Erudite, a newly qualified Wizard who has just taken up position at the prestigious Academy of Arcane Arts:

Erudite cannot get on with the ‘uniform’. It isn’t called a uniform, of course, but there is a sense of foreboding every time his fingers inch towards his everyday, comfortable, familiar clothes. He wants to wear loose trousers, sturdy boots and a shirt with tight cuffs to stop them dragging in whatever potion he is currently working on. He wants to wear lighter colours, perhaps with a jovial coloured neckerchief. But the other Professors - the ones with grey hair, bemused smiles and an air of authority about them: they don’t wear those kinds of clothes. They wear robes. Long and billowing, their attire makes them appear bigger than they are. Within those robes, they glide knowingly around the long corridors of the Academy. Below those robes, who knows what's going on? It is an academic mystery. Their robes are clean and well cut, betraying no hint of the confusion they might feel, or difficulties they might be having with their research. Pristine robes that hang down at the wrists and are never - never - pushed up to their elbows in the pursuit of hard work. Research for these Professors is easy, it comes naturally, it does not require such things as graft or sweat. Their robes are symbols of their status, their tenure, proof that they live within the comfort of the Academy, and of their reciprocal relationship with it.

For me, Erudite's struggle is one of the dichotomy between belonging and being authentic – 'fitting in' is a mark of success; but how successful can he be if he is constantly uncomfortable with feelings of inauthenticity? What are the real and perceived consequences of his failure to wear a socially constructed 'normal' dress code?

These issues, among others, will be explored in greater detail in my upcoming conference presentations, and publications. For further information, discussion, and comments, please email me at

*Please note, this is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, locations or events is purely coincidental.



Archer, L. (2008a) ‘The new neoliberal subjects? Young/er academics’ constructions of professional identity’ Journal of Educational Policy 23(3) pp. 265-285

Archer, L. (2008b) ‘Younger academics’ constructions of ‘authenticity’, ‘success’ and professional identity’ Studies in Higher Education 33(4) pp. 385-403

Cannizzo, F. (2018) ‘‘You’ve got to love what you do’: Academic labour in a culture of authenticity’ The Sociological Review 66(1) pp. 91-106

Kara, H. (2013) 'It's hard to tell how research feels: using fiction to enhance academic research and writing' Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management: An International Journal 8(1) pp.70-84

King, I. (2015) ‘‘What to wear?’ Clothing as an example of expression of intentionality’ Argument 5(1) pp. 59-78

Wall, S. (2008) 'Easier said than done: writing an autoethnography' International Journal of Qualitative Methods 7(1) pp. 38-53

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