Tag Archives: Scheper-Hughes

#ethnobookclub The role of the ethnographic Self in the field: “Death Without Weeping”

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! 

Situating my own work and the act of “witnessing” the experience of many Wikipedians in terms that Nancy Scheper-Hughes uses

“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:Read More… #ethnobookclub The role of the ethnographic Self in the field: “Death Without Weeping”