Autobiography in Geography

The place of autobiography in geography is currently in flux. On the one hand, it is fair to say that ''autobiographical approaches are not widely accepted as a standard method for geographic research'' (Moss, 2001a: 190). In part, that lack of acceptance can be attributed to a lingering positivism that devalues autobiography because it does not produce 'objective' data that can be counted. However, even the rising respect for qualitative methods in geography has not yet led to a concomitant recognition of autobiography. The Dictionary of Human Geography, for example, has entries for ethnography, interviewing, participant observation, psychoanalysis, and focus groups, but does not have an entry for autobiography (or biography). Despite that lack of acceptance, however, others have noted that very recently autobiography is becoming increasingly common in the discipline. While that new work probably does not yet add up to the 'autobiographical turn' that Daniels and Nash proclaim, it may be that the current spate of autobiographical work is beginning to undermine the traditional disrespect the form has received.

Autobiography as Data

In taking stock of autobiography in geography, I want to distinguish the two ways it is used. Autobiography as data is when geographers use an autobiography written by someone else as data for their research project. One of the most well known examples of that approach is the use of the journals of Victorian women travelers. Here the draw of autobiography is that it is told from a particular perspective. It articulates how women in that time saw the world and British colonialism. That perspective was systematically excluded from public discourse in Victorian Britain, and so autobiography provides researchers with information they would not otherwise have. Of course, in this case, recapturing women's perspectives also contributes to a feminist project of interrogating historically unequal power relations between men and women.

Another reason geographers have used autobiography as data is because it offers information that is emotional, experiential, and subjective. For example, migration studies tend to be highly quantitative, reducing each person's complex history to a set of commensurate data. So Findlay and Li used what they called an 'auto biographical approach' to better understand why migrants choose to move. Though they called their approach autobiography, they actually used interviews to prompt subjects to tell some of their life story. The quasiautobiographical stories they gathered allowed Findlay and Li to understand migration decisions in a way they could not have using traditional quantitative data. In that respect, autobiography is not much different from other qualitative methods: geographers use it to collect rich information about people's experience, emotions, and everyday life that quantitative techniques do not handle well.

Autobiography as Method

Autobiography can also be used as a method. That is, a researcher can narrate elements of his or her own life in order to achieve a particular intellectual goal. There are many ways that project can be pursued. In order to make some sense of that diversity I ariculate four different approaches. Those four are not intended to be exhaustive, rather, I hope they begin to suggest some of the different intellectual projects that autobiography can serve. It is important to stress that there is much overlap among the various forms. The differences are not stark breaks but variations in the degree of emphasis each places on particular intellectual goals.

The 'great man'

The most traditional approach grows out of the European Enlightenment and comes to us through St. Augustine and Rousseau. It is much more willing than the other three to accept that individuals are self contained and relatively autonomous. It portrays individuals making key choices and fashioning themselves through those choices. The narratives tend to be comprehensive; that is, they do not focus on one aspect of the life (e.g., one's sexuality) but aim at a full account of an individual's life. That is because the goal of the approach is more than anything to make sense of the life itself: not as a case that can shed light on larger trends, but as worth understanding on its own terms. Therefore the subject of such autobiographies has usually attained a measure of social status, some import that would cause readers to want to understand the story behind the great personage (who is usually a man). Bill Clinton's My Life is an archetypical example. In geography, the pieces in Peter Gould and Forrest Pitts' Geographical Voices are good illustrations, as is Gould's Becoming a Geographer. The reader's interest is assumed to be in the figure himself, and so the narratives aim to help us understand the paths that led to the preeminence of each figure (all 14 of whom are men in Geographical Voices). In such accounts, one can often pick up an element of apologia – of self vindication – as when David Harvey's excellent essay in Gould and Pitts' book narrates, with some spleen, his failed attempts to publish, in Society and Space, a response to postmodern criticisms of his work. There is also an element of 'life and times' in this form. To an extent, the narratives are intended to shed light on the wider history of the discipline. But in the main, the goal of this kind of autobiography is what might be called ''enshrining'. It writes about a life in order to codify an individual's position in a social pantheon.


Another approach, what we might call phenomenological, is interested in the individual not as a great man of history but as someone with rich human experience. Here the aim is to better understand everyday life, and so the 'ordinary' person is generally more prized as subject than the extraordinary one. The approach is typified by Yi Fu Tuan's Who Am I ?, the goal of which is to sift through the artifacts of everyday experience to better understand the emotion, mind, and spirit of one life. ''Just as no human life is negligible,'' writes Tuan, ''so no human life story is negligible, not worth telling.'' The subjective nature of autobiography is particularly important here, because it is the only way to properly perceive and convey what it is like to feel, to experience, and to live. For phenomenologists, the attempt to understand what it means to be human, to use thick description to convey the rich details of a human life, is the most important kind of academic inquiry. The choice of self as subject is therefore often driven by access: an author's own life is the one she or he knows most intimately, from which the richest detail can be drawn. In Tuan's case, one might justifiably suspect that there is an element of enshrinement and/or apologia at play here, given that he is nearing the end of his career and has seen his approach to geography become unfashionable. But one searches mostly in vain for self justification. What comes through much more clearly is the earnest desire to take seriously and to capture a rich human experience.


A third approach is heir to the post structuralist critiques of the past several decades. Those critiques have stressed the importance of reflexivity, whereby researchers critically examine their own subject position. Advocates of reflexivity reject the idea that knowledge is preexisting, to be collected and reported by the researcher. Rather knowledge is taken to be actively 'produced' by the researcher (in collaboration with many others). Whenever research is reactive in some way (i.e., surveys, ethnography, interviews, and participant observation), the researcher enters into complex relations with those being researched. Those relations play a central role in producing the knowledge the research creates. Therefore, we must critically examine the multiple social and political relations that influence the production of academic knowledge. That imperative prompts researchers to write what might be called critical mini autobiographies designed to explore their positionality and their relations with their research subjects. They do not aim at a comprehensive account of a life, since that life is not the focus of the inquiry (unlike in the 'great man' approach). Rather the autobiography is what could be called targeted: it presents an autobiographical account designed primarily to examine reflexively the production of academic knowledge. In this approach, autobiography is therefore a buttressing strategy. It is taken seriously, but it is not the main focus of the research, which is usually some form of ethnography.

However, this work stresses that such distinctions are tricky. The researcher in many ways becomes part of the community, in the sense of having entered into a web of relationships with those she or he is studying. The more embedded the researcher is, the greater the degree of incorporation will be, and the more the autobiography will bleed into ethnography. It will become harder to make distinctions between self and other, between insider and outsider. As a result, this approach undermines the idea of the self contained, autonomous individual. Rather it sees individuals as overdetermined by multiple social factors. A good example of the approach is the work of David Butz. During his intensive and extended fieldwork in a remote village in Pakistan, it became clear to him that his presence was significantly changing how the village saw and engaged the world. They actively worked to incorporate him and his research project into their social structure (albeit in limited and strategic ways). Moreover, his experience in the village changed him, particularly in how he wrote his findings. He increasingly became a self conscious advocate rather than a neutral observer. As Butz' life became increasingly intertwined with the history and culture of the village, distinguishing his autobiography from the village's ethnography became increasingly messy.

This movement toward reflexive mini autobiographies is by far the most popular of the autobiographical approaches presented here. Reflecting critically on one's subject position has become almost compulsory in writing up qualitative research in geography. Any claims about an 'autobiographical turn' in geography, therefore, can be traced to the waxing of this approach.

One subelement of the move toward reflexivity has been attempts at a more critical version of the 'great man' approach. An increasing number of scholars have begun to reflect critically on how they came to hold the intellectual convictions they do. They explore the life experiences that have led them to adopt a particular intellectual approach (e.g., queer geography). Unlike the more traditional approach, the goal here is not to enshrine the self in the pantheon, although some measure of that does inevitably happen; rather it is more fully to critically question how academic ideas come to be accepted. It suggests that scholars come to champion intellectual arguments not because of the crystalline truth of those arguments, but because scholars' embodied experiences resonate with the values those arguments propound. The approach therefore continually undermines all received wisdom – for example, of Marxism, of feminism, and of queer theory – by suggesting that the ascendancy of a particular idea is due to the contingent ways it intersects with the life histories of practicing academics. Rather than a positivist academia in which scholars set out to progressively uncover truth through the scientific method, this approach to autobiography posits a political struggle. It sees academia as an ongoing contest among multiple arguments, and those arguments are always necessarily subjective, embodied, and partial. That argument is of course part of the wider (originally feminist) claim that the personal is political, that one's subjective experience should be made absolutely central to public and academic discourse.

Insurgent autobiography

That political understanding of the personal is best expressed in a fourth tradition, what I call insurgent autobiography. It is an emerging trend in autobiography that shares much with conventions of testimonio and autoethnography. The idea of insurgent autobiography, as the name implies, is to use autobiography to actively destabilize ruling assumptions. Autobiography is valued as a way to give voice to the voiceless, to articulate the perspective of the marginalized, the dispossessed, and the oppressed. That perspective is commonly devalued, ignored, or silenced by a dominant culture. In Guatemala, for example, the testimonio method is a way that victims of systematic violence can tell their story of rape, torture, and mass killings, a story that is aggressively suppressed by those in power. Voicing the perspective from the margins can subvert the dominant logics that help marginalize subordinate populations. In that vein, autoethnography is very much akin to insurgent autobiography. It is an attempt by the colonized to reclaim control of how we understand colonized cultures, the legacy of colonial rule, and current development politics. One goal of insurgent autobiography, therefore, is to help liberate oppressed people.

Insurgent autobiography has also been used by a few geographers in order to examine social relations in the academy. Mona Domosh narrates how dominant masculine norms in the academy served to devalue her interpersonal style and limit her job opportunities. Laura Pulido talks about the enormous emotional impact of being a Latina in a dominantly white discipline. She uses her story to make that impact apparent to a white discipline that cannot see it. My own autobiographical piece pursued a similar agenda from the perspective of non tenure track faculty, and Ian Cook did so from the perspective of a graduate student. That work on the academy, taking its cue especially from feminist work of the 1980s and queer theory from the 1990s, often emphasizes the details of everyday experience in order to make clear the destructive impact structures of inequality have on the lives of marginalized people.

As the connection to autoethnography implies, there is often an element of collective representation involved in insurgent autobiography, especially in testimonio. That is, the author often claims that she or he speaks not only for oneself, but also on behalf of the whole community of which she or he is a part. That collectivization is not so much hubris, nor is it shoddy scholarship. Testimonio refuses the assumption that autobiography must be individual and cannot be collective. It insists rather that individual stories are necessarily imbricated in and inseparable from collective histories. That is not to say they are identical, but that the lines between autobiography, ethnography, and autoethnography are impossible to draw clearly. The lines are always transgressed – both unintentionally and creatively – in the writing process. Testimonio presents the collective experience of oppression, and it therefore aims at liberation not only for a person, but for a whole group.

Alternatively, insurgent autobiography can be more willing to accept the convention of bounded individuals. My autobiography claimed to speak authoritatively only about my own experience as a non tenure track faculty member, and to make no claims about the experience of others. I hoped my story would make it easier for others to tell their stories, and in the aggregate, many individual stories would make up a wider narrative about the pathology of academic hierarchy. However, at the same time, because it is only one of a few such stories, to some extent it will likely be read as representative, as standing in for a whole category of people.

Another goal, complementary to liberation, concerns healing. Just the act of writing your story, of publicly revealing the violence, pain, or humiliation you have endured, can, for many, be therapeutic. It can prompt a catharsis that lifts a heavy psychological burden. Moreover, it can begin a process of healing through solidarity. That is, it often reveals connections among seemingly isolated life stories. Another's autobiography can seem eerily similar to your own, and you can begin to understand that your experience of marginalization or oppression is shared by others. When you are systematically devalued by a dominant culture, knowing you are not alone can help begin the process of reclaiming your self esteem, of healing the wounds your position has inflicted. Of course such connections can be the start of a more functional political solidarity, whereby people with similar autobiographies realize that they share a common subjugation, and a common agenda for liberation. For all those reasons, insurgent autobiography can be a powerful strategy for marginalized populations, both to cope and to remake the conditions of their disadvantage.


Certainly my heuristic categorization separates out what are interlaced approaches to autobiography. All four valorize a subjective method of academic inquiry, one that values emotion, situated knowledge, perception, and even, as Tuan has it, spirit. Autobiography is therefore firmly part of the rising respect for qualitative methods in geography. Moreover, all four are concerned, to different degrees, not with the 'auto' alone but with the social context in which that subject is embedded, and more specific connections are evident as well. Phenomenology shares with insurgent autobiography a concern for everyday experience. Reflexivity and the 'great man' approach both strive to understand how an individual came to be who she or he is. So it is important to remember these approaches are deeply intertwined, even as we parse out their various differences.

Perhaps the most important point to stress in closing is that autobiography remains very much emergent in geography. Despite the increasing acceptance of situated knowledge, and despite the obvious quality and success of Pamela Moss' edited volume on the form, the place of autobiography is not secure in the discipline. The desire of the great man approach to enshrine rugged individuals, while consonant with current popular culture, cannot flourish in an academy that largely rejects its assumptions about the self contained individual. While feminist and queer geographers have produced some compelling work that critically updates the 'great man' tradition, only a few have been published so far. The phenomenological tradition of autobiography seems to be fading, although critical geographers who emphasize the importance of everyday life may well return to phenomenological autobiography in the future. But while the reflexive turn has brought self examination to the fore, that is not quite the same thing as the rich detail and quiet humanity of a traditional phenomenological autobiography like Tuan's. Lastly, insurgent autobiography is really just getting off the ground in academic geography. Since it is written from the perspective of the marginalized, and since academics doing research are generally in positions of power, insurgent autobiography by academics would usually mean accounts by marginalized populations inside the academy. Following Domosh, Pulido, Cook, and Purcell, insurgent autobiographies could provoke an extended and thoroughly critical examination of the social hierarchies of the academy. But even though such an examination is desperately needed, it is never easy for the less powerful to write (and publish) their stories.

It is therefore critical to consciously advocate for the fledgling form of autobiography. If it is to mature and become an accepted qualitative method, we must continue advocating, and writing, more autobiography in academic geography.