An Autoethnographic Sensibility

One response to these criticisms may come from employing an autoethnographic sensibility, the second way human geographers might approach autoethnography. Geographers David Butz and Kathryn Besio outline what they call an autoethnographic sensibility, drawing from the work of literary critic Mary Louise Pratt. Pratt conceptualizes autoethnographic texts as those produced by indigenous others in order to represent themselves to their others – in Pratt's conceptual dyad, their colonial others – in an idiom that is not their own. Pratt's mode of autoethnography is one that understands the 'auto', the author, in autoethnography as the colonized or formerly colonized subject, who seeks to position her or himself in metropolitan produced texts. The purpose of these autoethnographic representations is to intervene dialogically in representations that would otherwise write them out. She states, ''if ethnographic texts are a means by which Europeans represent themselves to their (usually subjugated) others, autoethnographic texts are those the others construct in response to or in dialogue with those metropolitan representations.'' In Pratt's conceptualization of autoethnography, it captures something of the dialectic between accommodation and resistance: accommodation in terms of idiom – writing ethnographically – resistance in terms of intent – writing to make one's voice heard. Pratt uses the example of a manuscript written in Quechua and Spanish by an Incan writer in 1613 that rewrites Christianity to include an indigenous worldview. What Pratt outlines as autoethnography does not include Western trained ethnographers writing as 'autoethnographers'. For Pratt, the autoethnographer is an indigenous author whose ethnographic representation highlights the transcultural nature of knowledge, that is, a product of unequal cultural exchange in a contact zone.

Drawing upon Pratt's substantial insights into ethnographic representation and its production, Butz and Besio outline what they call an 'autoethnography sensibility', in which autoethnography is something that research subjects do but that ethnographers/researchers want to understand. Certainly, one of the goals of ethnography is to understand lifeworlds, usually those dissimilar to researchers' own, by immersing themselves in the activities of others and participating and observing their lives. In this view of ethnography, the ethnographer is a kind of scribe who merely writes down what he or she sees. In contrast, an autoethnographic sensibility would attend to ethnographic interactions as strategic, intentional, and possibly interventionist, in which ethnographic selves are always already representing themselves as selves to their Western others. Researchers working within an autoethnographic sensibility must cultivate ways to understand when their ethnographic others engage them in producing their autoethnographic texts through the ethnographers' text. As researchers, we might attune our research to texts and those moments where research subjects use the idiom of the researcher to make a point that is more theirs than the researchers'. An autoethnographic sensibility could be better cultivated among researchers to pay more attention to moments of self representation by those engaged in the research process. It is in this understanding of an autoethnographic sensibility that much of the potential of an anticolonial research practice comes to the foreground, because it more actively supports research subjects' political projects that researchers are interested in studying.

Like the autobiographical form of autoethnography, there are significant critiques of an autoethnographic sensibility that must be heeded. First, ethnographers rarely can represent the interests of everyone in a group or community, and their work is often a representation of 'key informants' views', whose views stand in for the whole. Recognizing the agency and intentionality of information 'given' to the researcher as strategic has the potential to rescript researchers' perceptions of the researcher researched dynamic. However, these autoethnographic representations are nevertheless partial or as partially true as ethnographic representations. Second, given different spaces and places of research, some subjects have more representational tools at their disposal to produce textual autoethnographies. One of the problems of confining autoethnography to written texts, maps, and other forms of printed representations is that there is diversity of representational tools among those who have access to making these sorts of representations. Certainly not all autoethnographers produce texts but nevertheless represent their interests in ways that engage with ethnographic representation.

There is room within an autoethnographic sensibility to consider the ways that research subjects may perform their ethnographic understandings in spaces outside of 'texts' or in those ethnographic moments, such as interviews, life stories, case studies, etc., that make up the ethnographic data. In understanding autoethnography as more performative, ethnographers with an autoethnographic sensibility might acknowledge those moments in which those who are usually represented assert and represent themselves as selves to the ethnographer, strategically inserting themselves into ethnographic texts.