Autobiography and Ethnography
In the first and perhaps most intuitively accessible understanding to researchers, autoethnography refers to a type of ethnographic writing that seeks to combine elements of 'autobiography' with 'ethnography'. The 'auto' in autoethnography, the 'self ', is the researcher, most often a Western trained researcher, who draws upon their own biographies to foreground social relations. However, there are also 'native' ethnographers who work from within their cultural frameworks, who draw upon this type of biographical and culturally contextualized writing. Common to both non native and the so called native researchers is an understanding that autoethnography is a reflexive writing strategy, whereby the researcher/author positions her or himself prominently within the text in a way that is selfconsciously author/researcher centered. This form of autoethnography is directly concerned with representing the researcher and her or his situatedness within the research process or, alternately, in situations related to the research setting.
Sociologist Carolyn Ellis is one of the most oftencited autoethnographers. She describes autoethnography as ''an autobiographical genre of writing and research that displays multiple layers of consciousness, connecting the personal to the cultural.'' Ellis uses autoethnography to great effect in demonstrating how to do autoethnography by drawing upon conversations and dialog, demonstrating how researchers analyze the social through the personal. In this representational mode of autoethnography, the researchers' embeddedness in the research process is part of the authors' concerns, as well as making apparent the links between an individual author and the social and cultural structures that implicitly produce the research setting.
This autobiographical form of autoethnography is receiving increased attention across the social sciences, although as anthropologist Deborah Reed Danahay states autoethnography is not new to anthropology. Anthropologists have been combining biography and ethnography for some time, using 'experimental' writing strategies to produce ethnographies. Although geographers use experimental writing strategies as well, they do not seem to do so as extensively as anthropologists, perhaps in part because of what Mike Crang calls geographer's use of more 'pluralistic methodologies' than solely ethnography. There is increased interest in combining autobiography with geography, with Pamela Moss's edited volume, Autobiography and Geography, a good starting point for those interested in the links between autobiography and geography writing.
Ethnography, as the hallmark method within social and cultural anthropology, occupies a more solid position within the discipline and much more attention has been paid to the 'writing of culture' than geographers have done. However, with that said, researcher centered writing is experiencing a resurgence in academic literature in qualitative methods in geography, not only in response to the social sciences 'cultural turn' late in the last century, but also is in response to feminist scholars, such as Sandra Harding's and Donna Haraway's, insistence upon situated research and the now nearly mandatory recognition of reflexive and reflective authorship. Researchers working ethnographically are now much more cautious about how they position themselves in their texts, aware of potential responses from those they research to how they are represented, and of the inherent power imbalances in the research process.
While an author centered autoethnography makes more transparent the author/ethnographer's positioning in the field through the text, it nevertheless still draws suspicion and often warranted criticism that it is too indulgently on the 'auto' side of ethnography. That is, autoethnography may overstate the ethnographer's positioning at the expense of illuminating broader social interactions and the flows and machinations of power. This remains a significant concern for autoethnographers for a number of reasons, but two important points bear further consideration. First, work that illuminates the researcher's position at the expense of cultural structures may falter in its attempts to foster understanding of wider cultural relations, what Ellis calls the movement of in and of out between the researcher's lens as she or he moves their analysis from self to other. Second, work that does not move beyond the individual researcher may further marginalize more experimental writing strategies, leaving readers increasingly weary of reflexive research and autoethnography as yet one more way that the Western subject resituates the authorial gaze toward Western produced knowledge. In feminist geography, a critique of reflexive writing strategies is mounting. Currently, there seems to be some backlash regarding such authorcentered representational strategies as yet another way to allow the Western researcher the most prominent position in ethnographic writing, once again marginalizing those they research.