Four Forms

In trying to pinpoint exactly what is an autobiography, it is worth trying to understand its relationship to similar forms of inquiry. Biography, ethnography, and auto ethnography are perhaps the closest cognates. On the surface, there are differences clear enough one might even be tempted to put them in a matrix (see Table 1). It appears that autobiography is what a person writes about one's own life. In biography a person's life is written by another. Ethnography involves a researcher writing about a group of people, while in autoethnography the group writes about itself. All forms share the 'graph' root: they seek to 'write' some human experience, to represent it to an audience. In addition, for most practitioners, such 'graphing' does not imagine it is producing a scientific, objective understanding; rather it accepts that represen tations are necessarily subjective and involve complex relations between representer and represented.

Relationship between autobiography and biography, ethnography, and authoethnography

Those complex relations are also what blurs the lines among the four forms. The differences among them rest on the assumption that there are clear distinctions to be made between self and other, and between individual and group. However, various currents of recent thought – both modernist and postmodernist – have muddied such distinctions. Derrida, for example, in his notion of the constitutive outside, suggests that one's identity is necessarily constituted in part by its outside, by what it is not. The lines between self and other, between insider and outsider, are therefore difficult to draw neatly, since they are necessarily imbricated in each other. Similarly, both liberal and postliberal political philosophy have accepted that each individual is significantly composed of the social relations in which one is embedded. It is not so simple, therefore, to distinguish clearly between in dividual and society. An autobiography, for example, ostensibly aims at representing an individual. But if the individual is necessarily constituted in part by one's social context, then writing the life of an individual is always also, in part, writing the life of one's society. For autobiography, therefore, the goal is never to elu cidate 'only' the self, since no self exists in isolation. To make matters more complex, yet another set of relations are inherent in the act of writing: those between author and audience, mediated by the text. As a result of those critical destabilizations, most writers in all four traditions have come to accept that they confront a complex and mutable set of interrelationships between self and other, individual and society, and author and audience.

The issue of power is yet another element of the mix. Recent work in political philosophy has stressed that all social relations are imbued with relations of power. The relations between self and other, individual and society, and author and audience that characterize all four tra ditions are therefore also shot through with relations of power. Any project to represent a social reality is in escapably shaped by (and an intervention in) relations of power. Autoethnography, for example, is in many respects an attempt by colonized peoples to reclaim from the colonizer the authority to represent their culture. It is both a reaction to existing power relations and a con scious attempt to change them.