Milking it: Exploring the mundane task of shopping for milk through an autoethnographic lens

Author: Rachid Sekkai


Rachid is a mature student conducting a PhD by practice (a thesis and a film documentary) on a Citizenship, Governance, and Security pathway funded by the SCDTP. He is currently completing his Masters in Social Methods as part of the programme. His research seeks to untangle the mystery of an outcast community of Algerians (the Harkis), who collaborated with the French army during the Algerian War of Independence from 1954 to 1962. He intends to do this by conducting an ethnographic study of Harkis who remained in Algeria after the war, to ‘get up close and personal’ to their lived experiences, explore their perceptions of the ‘treason’ narrative, and investigate the ways in which they sought to reintegrate back into Algerian society. Rachid has been a Journalist with the BBC World Service for over 17 years. 

Contact details:

This project stems from my Qualitative Methods assignment for the Masters in Social Research Methods which aims to record in detail my autoethnographic endeavour within the context of a (un)familiar social experience of buying a pint of milk in my local shop. I shall do that by following advice from the likes of Carolyn Ellis on autoethnography and use my personal experience to illustrate ‘facets’ of my sociocultural identity(ies) and norms within specific times and spaces. I start by outlining the topic and conclude by critically questioning the forces and flaws of performing this autoethnographic examination.


The milk story

Global milk consumption makes milk a lucrative business and precipitates commercial competition or monopoly in some countries – and even corruption, (as in Mexico and Serbia). In my home country of Algeria, the situation is dire; only 25% of nationally available cow’s milk is collected thus suppressing production below the national demand. This situation has resulted in the authorities importing huge quantities of foreign milk at subsidised prices. However, large quantities of this sponsored milk go to dairy manufacturers, leaving the lay population with a long-standing yet avoidable milk crisis. Local TV channels have broadcast news reports showing ordinary Algerians queuing up outside their corner shops at 6 o’clock in the morning to buy milk to last for a day or two – with a bit of luck! My own family in Algeria endures this milk saga, and by extension, I too. Even though I live in Britain, some 2,000 miles away from them, I feel their suffering. As a journalist who reported extensively on Algeria, I’m aware of the political and social factors that envelop the Algerian milk crisis and now experience an uneasy dissonance, simply by being able to buy a pint a milk from the corner shop with no fuss. Ergo, I decided to conduct to try my autoethnography task as a means to examine and understand how the mundane task of buying milk in Britain intersects with the Algerian milk crisis. I ask: What factors affect my experience of buying milk in a shop in the UK?


The autoethnography approach

To explore the factors that affect my experience of are buying milk in a shop in the UK, I followed two methods:

Stage one involved using personal memory /artifacts. By way of exploring my research question, I used online newspaper articles tackling the issue of milk scarcity in Algeria over the last five years. This approach jogged my memory to retroactively and selectively capture thoughts relative to my topic question. I sought to understand how ‘the causes of the milk crisis back home’ shaped my experience buying milk in Britain, which is my own personal positioning in this endeavour. I wanted to link my past, present, and future with (my)self in line with what Bonoit (2016) used in his critical autoethnography exploring how teachers use school memory for their self-growth (2016). Because this is not a ‘collaborative’ autoethnography, I lack the luxury of a shared perspective.

Stage two was made of a self-interview. Some scholars claim autoethnography is an
extension of the active interview approach (Holstein & Gubrium, 1995). Consequently, after the above memory jogging exercise, I embarked upon the next task of interviewing myself drawing on the narratives I captured in step one. I must confess to being more of a social constructivist, sheltering under the umbrella of post-modernism. I believe in multiple truths within everything. Equipped with an unstructured self-interview to optimise thought flow, I interrogated myself, whilst being as truly myself as possible (and true to myself too!).

News articles helped me re-live the moments and emotions. Yet although an experienced journalist who interviewed many people from around the world, I still found the experience of self-inquiring, soul-searching, somehow unnerving. I was too self-conscious. Initial data management required discarding ‘redundant’, and ‘inefficient’ information, then reading the transcript repeatedly, I started confusing my ‘I’s with the ‘others’. This analysis was marked by a re-occurrence of a peculiar mental ‘back and forth’ positioning between the ‘emic/etic’ perspectives around milk buying (and drifting to other mundane British tasks and how these might seem to Algerians), prompting me to be in an almost schizophrenic state, or ‘liminal spaces’ of neither here nor there (yet! Ever?) (Lewis & Mehmet, 2021). I found myself mentally drifting to the critical cultural instances that shape(ed) my worldview, not from the words of the manuscript but, beyond, and beneath them. I had to leave the familiar to get to the ‘unknown’ (Aslop, 2002).

My set of dataset omits material from others, the ‘ideal’ other participants could have been ordinary Algerians, but that was not possible in this instance. To me, the news articles were the stimulating ‘substitute’, while using UK participants was neither fair nor ethical, for the aim of this exercise as they are detached from context.

Once I’d completed the analysis of the interpretation of meanings within all elements mentioned above – which also involved connecting the ‘personal’ to the ‘sociocultural’
phenomenon (Chang, 2013) – I retrieved the essential themes embedded in the sensemaking annotations (Creswell, 1998; Liebisch, 1998).

I detected the following themes were detected: milk industry / political system (corruption), sadness (sense of loss), frustration (anger), perceptions (1- of self, 2- of others, 3- others of me, 4-others of others), negotiation, humour, sense of struggle.

It was evident from the themed analysis that my self ‘perception’ was split between
my perception of others (the UK’s superior status) and (Algeria’s and by extension Algerians’ inferior status) and this feature shaped almost all my experience of shopping for milk. To me, this phenomenon was reminiscent of Kay’s (1996) study findings around African migrant’s’ self-consciousness. He discussed how their perceptions of body image extended to how they thought Europeans thought/perceived them, so they strived to meet those perceptions. I so relate to that.

I even go further; I discovered from my revealing autoethnography that I might be applying too harsh a comparison between my family’s behaviour (and by extension, all Algerians) with how people behaved in Britain and wanting or expecting them to conform.

The other significant issue disclosed through my experience related to the burden I carry on my shoulders, being perceived as a ‘successful’ migrant (journalist/Ph.D. Student) in the eyes of my family, neighbours, and others (I appeared on television), who culturally speaking expect me to be rich and therefore obliged to help. That realisation created mixed sensations of pride but also guilt and anger, wishing they too were successful. I directed blame at them too, for accepting the rampant state corruption that led to many ongoing crises, including the milk story. These positions are somewhat in line with what Mazzucato (2008, 111) called ‘Transnational Reciprocity’.

Another important aspect I unveiled was a sense of loss, of being torn between two cultures, as semi-integrated migrant. I do not seem to be rooted in the UK. African migrants tend to compensate for homesickness by indulging in other behaviours, such as gambling or alcohol (Finch et al., 2003). As a practicing Muslim, I do neither, resulting in high built-up frustrations. There is an irony in knowing that while the Brits go down the pub for a beer, I buy a pint of milk and make coffee!. That leads me to humour, a ploy I use to shift my attention away from those hindrances (Ritchie, 2005). That is not all there is. I seem to be confronting another demon; a confusing perceived linguistic ‘barrier’, questioning the soundness of my English language skills, which is considered standard in some migrant communities (Kennedy & Romo, 2013).


There is no doubt that autoethnography is a unique and enlightening methodology that brings people closer. As a social science tool, it takes the epistemological inquiry to the next level, embracing lived experience in a new liberating way free from the restricting ‘shackles’ of the orthodox qualitative methodologies. And whilst its reliability and transferability can be debated, applying it sensibly can shorten the distance between the artful and the scientific. Looking through autoethnography at my lived experience of buying milk as a bi-cultural, bi-lingual migrant in the UK has shed new and nuanced light on how I see myself in relation to myself and others both in the UK and back in Algeria, in ways I would not have understood otherwise. I hope that others, out there, will find this unique enterprise inspiring.



Adams, T.E. & Ellis, C. (2012). Trekking through autoethnography. In Qualitative Research: An introduction to methods and designs, edited by S. Lapan et al.,189-212.

Alsop, C.K. (2002). Home and Away: Self-Reflexive Auto-/Ethnography. Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 3(3).

Benoit, B.A. (2016). Schools as Artifacts: Critical Autoethnography and Teacher Renewal. McGill

Chang, H. (2013). Individual and collaborative autoethnography as method. In Handbook of Autoethnography, edited by T.E. Adams et al., 107-122.

Creswell, J. W., & Miller, D. L. (2000). Determining validity in qualitative inquiry. Theory into Practice, 39(3), 124-130.

Finch, B.K. Catalano, R.C., Novaco, R.W., & Vega, W.A. (2003). Employment frustration and alcohol abuse/dependence among labor migrants in California. Journal of Immigrant Health, 5, 181-186.

Kay, S. & Rubin, M. (Eds.). (1996). Framing Medieval Bodies. Manchester University Press.

Kennedy, K.D. & Romo, H.D. (2013). “All colors and hues”: An autoethnography of a multiethnic family’s strategies for bilingualism and multiculturalism. Family Relations, 62(1), 109-124.

Lewis, C. & Mehmet, M. (2021). An autoethnographic exploration of rural travel with a food intolerance. Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Management, 47, 289-293.

Mazzucato, V. (2008). Transnational reciprocity: Ghanaian migrants and the care of their parents back home. Generations in Africa: Connections and conflicts, 111-133.

Ritchie, D. (2005). Frame-shifting in humor and irony. Metaphor and Symbol, 20(4), 275-294.

Back to Blog