Yesterday I settled down with a cup of coffee at Blackwell’s book shop in Oxford to re-read the highlights that I’d made of the Kindle edition of our book club book of the month, Nancy Scheper-Hughes’ “Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil“. But, once again, I was drawn so completely into her really lucid, powerful writing about her role in the field of the alto that I found myself re-reading the chapter and thinking about how I might apply her approach in my own ethnographic work (or alternatively as where I might be a little more tenuous). I’m kicking off what we hope you might continue: picking a single paragraph that stood out for you the most and talking about what it means to you and your practice. Feel free to post in the comments section below or come on over to the mailing list where the team will be discussing the book with the incredible group of ethnographers who inhabit it. Also feel free to blog, Tweet and/or talk about the book in other places by using the tag #ethnobookclub as you come across interesting stuff!
“The field” in Nancy Scheper-Hughes’s book is the hillside favela above the plantation town of Bom Jesus de Mata in Northeastern Brazil. Scheper-Hughes returns to the village that she had worked in as a 20-year-old activist to try to understand why mothers do not treat the death of so many of their infants as a tragedy. During a period of 25 years, returning on and off to the village, Scheper-Hughes follows three generations of shantytown women in their struggles against starvation, sickness and death.
Scheper-Hughes says that her writing departs from traditional or classical ethnography in the way that the self, other, and scientific objectivity are handled, as well as how her own values and sympathies are made explicit, rather than “invisible” or hidden. She describes the role of the ethnographer as follows (my highlights):
The ethnographer, like the artist, is engaged in a special kind of vision quest through which a specific interpretation of the human condition, an entire sensibility, is forged. Our medium, our canvas, is “the field”, a place both proximate and intimate (because we have lived some part of our lives there) as well as forever distant and unknowably “other” (because our own destinies lie elsewhere). In the act of “writing culture,” what emerges is always a highly subjective, partial, and fragmentary – but also deeply felt and personal – record of human lives based on eyewitness and testimony. The act of witnessing is what lends our work its moral (at times its almost theological) character. So-called participant observation has a way of drawing the ethnographer into spaces of human life where she or he might really prefer not to go at all and once there doesn’t know how to go about getting out except through writing, which draws others there as well, making them party to the act of witnessing.
I love this paragraph for so many reasons, but the glimpse of answers to three important questions stand out for me:
1. What distinguishes me (the ethnographer) from the people in the field?
Scheper-Hughes says that “the field” is both intimate and a forever distant “other” – intimate because we’ve spent some of our lives there and distant because it will in many ways remain “unknowable” (since “our destinies lie elsewhere”). I love this description of the boundary between the ethnographer and the “other” because it abstracts the ethnographic project from its historical ties to places “untouched” by “civilization” to describe the boundaries of the field as the boundaries of a relationship separated by those whose destinies are tied to that place, and to the ethnographer whose destiny lies elsewhere.
2. How do I “get out” of the field?
This question has come up a lot in the Oxford ethnography group. DPhil students, having almost completed or recently completed their research say that they have had struggles getting out of the field, since in many ways the field follows them when they return home. Even though they go to fan events or game conferences and come back home again, emails and experiences follow them and threaten to interrupt their next project or them even moving on in their lives. Scheper-Hughes suggests that you get out of the field by writing, and in so doing, you bring others to this place with you and they witness it with you together. My own reading of this is in completing what was such a large part of my life for so long by writing what I learned, getting others to experience it as I see it, and finally being able to close the door and move on.
3. How do I “handle” subjectivity?
Ok, so I totally “get” how Scheper Hughes rationalizes subjectivity and the need to act as a personal witness to the lives of participants in the field. As she says, this is not an invitation to radical postmodernism:
Obviously, some events are “factual.” Either 150 or 350 children died of hunger and dehydration on the Alto do Cruzeiro in 1965; here the ethnographer has a professional and a moral obligation to get the “fact” as accurately as possible. This is not even debatable. But all facts are necessarily selected and interpreted from the moment we decide to count one thing and ignore another, or attend this ritual but not another, so that anthropological understanding is necessarily partial and is always hermeneutic. Nevertheless, though empirical, our work need not be empiricist. It need not entail a philosophical commitment to Enlightenment notions of reason and truth.
I’m not sure how practical this is for those of us studying in academic departments with professors who might not be as sympathetic to the symbolic ditching of the Enlightenment’s conceptualisations of reason and truth as perhaps other departments are. Being a credible and reliable witness in the eyes of our co-witnessers (readers) is as important as being true to our subjects, since without the former, we would not be able to do justice to the latter. I guess this is a strategic balancing act in practice. Scheper-Hughes was completely credible and reliable to me at least (and to many other influential people in the field as far as I can see by the reviews of the book) but I’m not sure how credible and reliable I might be to my professors if I explained that I was going to write a subjective account for my PhD/DPhil thesis. I’m intrigued by Scheper-Hughes’ philosophy about the power of “witnessing”, however, and I can recall that in my own experience I’ve always had really good responses when I’ve situated myself in the context of the research, explaining my own experience of the “field” as the place in which I lived and breathed for so long. I am really excited to push this within academia as far as I possibly can.
What did you think of the book (or perhaps just the first chapter)? We’d love to know!