Geography Geographic Methods: Life Writing Analysis
Pamela Moss, Kathryn Besio
  • LAST REVIEWED: 03 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0180


Life writing analysis emerged in recent years as a term used to describe that set of qualitative research methods that tell stories in concrete, innovative ways while retaining the rigor of theoretical insight and conceptual framings. Life writing analysis includes methodological approaches centered on autobiography, autoethnography, biography, oral history, and narrative analysis. It also includes collaborative writing strategies and story telling as a method of inquiry. In geography, the growth of life writing analysis can be traced to and situated within feminist attempts to tell stories without losing the entanglements of living the everyday. The rise of qualitative methods in the 1990s provided geographers with research techniques and approaches that could grasp in more nuanced terms people’s paths, vicissitudes, and prospects in life. There was a collective recognition that people did not live their lives in a vacuum, removed from the world around them. People were embedded in their social and physical environments and researchers sought to characterize both the ways in which people were involved in those surroundings and how they navigated relationships, arrangements, and organization of social, cultural, and economic connections to the world. Although ethnography offered a way to contextualize people’s lives, particularly lives in non-Western contexts, interviews turned out to be by far the most popular way to access lives. Interviews, structured and unstructured, in the same language and in translation, elicited information from people about some particular aspect of their own life. Yet it was left up to the researcher to pull fragments together in order to capture experience while providing context. For some researchers, interview fragments were not quite enough to be able to understand the complexities of how people actually lived their lives. Finely tuned efforts to investigate the specifics of a singular topic sometimes obscured both significant dimensions of people’s lives and connections people used to traverse within and across multiple aspects of everyday life. Geographers, especially feminist ones, sought different ways to research people’s lives, ones that could delve into both the complexity and situatedness of living a life.

Conceptual Groundwork

Life writing analysis is situated within a set of concepts that form a base from which to enter into a discussion of its effectiveness as a research method. Concepts include experience, self, subject, subjectivity, interpretation, representation, discourse, and materiality. Feminist writing within and outside geography influenced the shaping of the way that life writing analysis is taken up. Scott 1991 is a classic piece that demonstrates how experience itself needs to be subjected to scrutiny. Personal experience is not necessarily the center of life writing analysis and is not a taken-for-granted idea or empirical fact. Experience links the self and the social, leading to the idea that the personal is a site of exploration of identity in life writing (Miller 1991). Longhurst 1994 uses this idea of the personal to show how understandings of self usually embrace some facet of stability, even if fleeting, so as to make sense of how individuals maneuver through various sets of relationships comprising experience. Similarly, the subject and subjectivity are important in life writing analysis. Bondi 2014 and Moss 2014 provide accounts of how the tensions between patterned sets of relations (structure) and the capacity to act autonomously (agency) shape situations where individually they are called upon to act. In thinking about life writing analysis as a research method, there is a strong connection to interpretation as part of qualitative research generally. In a plea to get beyond the restrictions of interpretation, Besio and Butz 2004 challenge the representational significance of autoethnography and the role that it plays in effectively using these microscale stories for political purposes. Moving beyond both interpretation and representation opens up space for countless theories to inform, shape, and influence what is being politicized as a part of subject formation in, for example, approaches to decolonization (Tuck 2010), queer living (Holman Jones and Adams 2016), and disability (Moss 2013). Discourse matters in life writing analysis in that ideas, notions, and scripts organize behaviors, such as in the good immigrant, the healthy body, and the efficient worker, which figure prominently in how one makes sense of the everyday. Mills 1997 provides an overview of what discourse is and what it does. Materiality, including both the things that make up a life (for example, bodies, nonhuman life, practices, inanimate objects) and the economic conditions giving rise to a particular point in time and space, also influences how one thinks, talks, and writes about one’s life. These ideas are taken up in a handful of chapters in a collection on feminist materialisms in Alaimo and Hekman 2008, including the chapters Bordo 2008 and Tuana 2008.

  • Alaimo, Stacy, and Susan Hekman, eds. Material Feminisms. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008.

    This volume is an edited collection on how feminist thinking approaches materiality. Although not about life writing, there are chapters in it wherein the authors write lives from a feminist materialist theoretical orientation. The chapters can be useful in providing some conceptual background toward applying materialist notions to empirical contexts, including life writing.

  • Besio, Kathryn, and David Butz. “Autoethnography: A Limited Endorsement.” Professional Geographer 56.3 (2004): 432–438.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.0033-0124.2004.05603011.x

    Using Besio’s research with northern Pakistani women who have limited textual discursive powers, Besio and Butz outline their concerns about the uses of autoethnography, stemming from Besio’s positionality vis-à-vis the muted but nevertheless political voices of the women with whom she researched.

  • Bondi, Liz. “Feeling Insecure: A Personal Account in a Psychoanalytic Voice.” Social & Cultural Geography 15.3 (2014): 332–350.

    DOI: 10.1080/14649365.2013.864783

    Bondi uses autobiographical vignettes to explore the concept of ontological security, drawn from R. D. Laing’s psychotherapy. She links experience with emotion to show how the personal can shed light on the complexity of concepts that are used to write lives.

  • Bordo, Susan. “Cassie’s Hair.” In Material Feminisms. Edited by Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman, 400–424. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008.

    Bordo writes autobiographically about her care for her daughter’s hair. This chapter is a good example of how to address cultural and racial difference analytically, using an everyday practice of hair care and more specifically the practice of braiding.

  • Holman Jones, Stacy, and Tony E. Adams. “Autoethnography is Queer Method.” In Queer Methods and Methodologies: Intersecting Queer Theories and Social Science Research. Edited by Kath Browne and Catherine J. Nash, 195–214. London: Routledge, 2016.

    Holman Jones and Adams maintain that there is a theoretical affinity between autoethnography and queer theory in that both draw out the personal aspects of daily life. They define autoethnography as an analytical orientation rather than a method, and queer theory as a “shifting sensibility” rather than a paradigm. This shift brings to bear the relational and performative achievements of what counts as queer, self and identity.

  • Longhurst, Robyn. “The Geography Closest in—the Body . . . the Politics of Pregnability.” Australian Geographical Studies 32.2 (1994): 214–223.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8470.1994.tb00672.x

    This piece brings the issue of embodiment into writing about the personal, or what Longhurst calls the “geography closest in.” The theme of embodiment resonates through much of literature in life writing analysis.

  • Miller, Nancy K. Getting Personal: Feminist Occasions and Other Autobiographical Acts. New York: Routledge, 1991.

    Miller’s Getting Personal was influential in setting the agenda for using one’s own life as a departure point for analysis in geography. Her essays are still salient in framing the connections between the personal and the social, cultural, and political.

  • Mills, Sara. Discourse. New York: Routledge, 1997.

    This slim volume is a must-read for anyone thinking about discursive elements in life writing analysis. Mills’s use of accessible language to describe the ins and outs of discourse makes good reading for graduate courses.

  • Moss, Pamela. “Becoming-Undisciplined through My Foray into Disability Studies.” Disability Studies Quarterly 33.2 (2013).

    DOI: 10.18061/dsq.v33i2.3712

    Moss uses various forms of autobiographical writing to bring out different points in the making of her life as a disabled academic. Although a little long, it is worth the read, for this piece meticulously demonstrates how writing one’s life is informed by theoretical premises.

  • Moss, Pamela. “Some Rhizomatic Recollections of a Feminist Geographer: Working toward an Affirmative Politics.” Gender, Place & Culture 21.7 (2014): 803–812.

    DOI: 10.1080/0966369X.2014.939159

    Moss uses the concept of limit experience from Michel Foucault to draw out how discourse and materiality shape the contexts within which academics live their lives. She uses autobiographical vignettes to demonstrate how “coming undone” generates academics as subjects.

  • Scott, Joan W. “The Evidence of Experience.” Critical Inquiry 17.4 (1991): 773–797.

    DOI: 10.1086/448612

    This is a pivotal piece in conceptualizing experience as something that is constitutive rather than taken for granted. A must-read for anyone interested in life writing analysis. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Tuana, Nancy. “Viscous Porosity: Witnessing Katrina.” In Material Feminisms. Edited by Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman, 188–213. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008.

    This chapter draws out the links and connections—both conceptually and empirically—among relationships between discourse and materiality in writing the lives of people affected by Hurricane Katrina.

  • Tuck, Eve. “Breaking Up with Deleuze: Desire and Valuing the Irreconcilable.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 23.5 (2010): 635–650.

    DOI: 10.1080/09518398.2010.500633

    In an innovatively written piece organized around the phases of a breakup, Tuck contrasts her conceptualization of damage-centered research with the political value of an ontology premised on the generative and affirmative aspects of living. In doing so, she draws attention to the materiality of what decolonization means in practice.

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