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The Difference Between Autoethnography and Autobiography

There are various ways in which one can tell the story of their lives. One way a person would do this is by writing an autobiography. Another is a little less common term known as autoethnography. What is the difference between the two, and how can you identify this difference when reading the story of someone’s life?

What is Autoethnography?

Autoethnography refers to writing about one’s own ethnic background, culture, and personal experiences in a cultural setting. It is categorized as an academic text as it includes a method and is a record of places and people. Autobiography is less encumbered by method and is more freestyle, a creative, non-academic form of self-expression. It is the subject’s presentation of their life story told with no ulterior aims other than to share their experiences and insights.

Ethnography differs from biographies in that the writer places themselves in the self-centred text and connects the personal and cultural aspects of their life. 

Before undertaking any writing piece, an author usually does some form of research. This can take the form of searching for the names of places, important dates that are relevant to their story, or even significant cultural experiences that the author would have been exposed to growing up. 

What is an Autobiography?

An autobiography is a self-written biography, which is the unique story of one’s own life. Some call it a memoir, and it is more a freestyle, creative form of self-expression and sharing one’s experiences and insights.

A biography is the account of one’s life, told either by themselves, or by someone else. It covers the journey from birth, highlights the ups and downs, any significant experiences, and ends with the present day. A biography does not need much research, as the author relies on their own memories to tell the story.

There is much enjoyment and almost an element of escape in reading an autobiography. It gives you insight into the life someone else has lived, and takes you on their journey.

What are the key differences between an autobiography and an autoethnography?

The key difference between the two is the research methods that would need to be undertaken. Autoethnography requires quantitative and qualitative reasearch, while an autobiography is written based on ones own memories and experiences.

For a piece of writing to be considered an autoethnography, it would need to be made up of any of the following forms of research:

  • Library research (what others have said, the images they shared)
  • Self-reflection (what you know by your experiences)
  • Interviews (the teaching of others that isn’t already recorded)
  • Observations/field notes (for more insights)

The goal of autoethnography is primarily to teach outsiders about your culture or group through both personal insight and empirical research, but also to help people actually within your group or culture better understand themselves and the shared experience of that commonality.

Research elements that are often addressed by autoethnography are, for example, native research, participant observation, postcolonialism, qualitative research, reflexivity, situated knowledge, and transcultural research.

This genre, autoethnography, is written in the context of ethnographic writing and fieldwork, but a strict definition cannot be sourced. What is agreed by scholars, however, is that autoethnography is a research method based on the self-reflection of the writer, and would detail their experiences in growing up in a certain culture or place. The key to an autoethnography is the analytic connection between the memoirs, the autobiographical and personal experiences to the broader cultural and social factors.

The writing of an autoethnographic life history can provide rich and original information to critically analyze the dynamics in society: education, employment, family, marriage, parenting, religion, etc. Some examples of autoethnography are the career journey, the student’s journey, the athlete’s journey, the teacher’s journey, etc.

An example of an autoethnographic essay would be:

  • Adriana explores Anarchism in New York.
  • Hannah explores the world of computer programmers.
  • Heather explores the world of Bronies.
  • Jillian explores modern artistic taxidermy.
  • William explores the world of Manhattan Drag.

These would include some history of the topic or culture that they have immersed themselves in, providing researched accounts of the place, event, or theme.

What is the difference between an autobiography and an autobiographical narrative?

A full autobiography is a story of a person’s life, narrated by that person, from the beginning of their memories, or where they like to start their story, to the present time.  

A different kind of literary piece is the autobiographical narrative, which is the story that focuses on a few or more key events in the author’s life. This is also sometimes called a personal narrative.

The term autobiography is thought to have emerged in the Renaissance era in Europe, in the 15th century. The word was first used in 1797 by William Taylor in an English periodical and was picked up in the 19th century to describe the life story.

 An emerging trend in the 20th and 21st centuries has been called the insurgent autobiography whose aim is to give voice to minority groups to transform dominant social assumptions. 

The entertainer’s autobiography, or comical biography, is a popular genre, such as Miriam Margolyes’ This Much is True, (2021) and Spike Milligan’s war memoirs, Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall (1971)

You can group autobiographies into four main narrative groups: thematic, religious, intellectual, and fictionalized.

A seminal example of the religious autobiography is Saint Augustine’s Confessions, written about 400 CE, with Christianity at the center of the story—it is an account of his religious conversion. Hitler’s Mein Kampf in the mid-1920s is a form of thematic autobiography. John Stuart Mill the philosopher wrote Autobiography in 1873 as an example of the intellectual kind, and an example of a fictionalized autobiography is James Joyce’s 1916 work,  A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. While these all tell the subject’s life story, they have been written in completely different ways and therefore tell the story in an interesting way.


While most autobiographies are written about famous people, ethnography gives everyone the chance to share their life story in a way that others can relate to. From a place they visited, to an event that changed their life, we often seek commonalities with authors, and using ethnography is the best way to achieve this.

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