#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:

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!

Featured image by ATB910 on Flickr licensed under CC BY NC SA 

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

  1. jennaburrell
    November 7, 2012 at 6:11 am #

    Hope others will join with any thoughts at all about our first book club book. Here are mine…connected (loosely) to Heather’s eloquent reflection above…

    I’m trying to work out why I’m drawn to this book which, as far as subject matter, doesn’t have any connection (that I can see) to my own work (on the global Internet, youth culture, urban Africa).

    Are there soulful, novelistic accounts of digital technology in the style of Death without Weeping? If not, why not? Does it have to do with what’s at stake? Scheper-Hughes account as literally a matter of life and death and of the death of babies and small children no less.

    A style of ethnographic writing that I’m starting to recognize as a kind of ethnographic genre involves the use of long passages of dialogue with the people who are the subjects of the research. I recently asked an ethnographer who writes in this style about how he managed to do this – audio recorder in his shirt pocket (presumably with a loooooong battery life) was the answer…just capturing any and every causal thing that might be said. This genre of ethnographic writing draws inspiration in analytical styles from the theorist Mikhail Bakhtin. It reflects an effort to decenter the voice of the ethnographer, to unsettle neat linear narratives, and orderly arguments of some styles of ethnographic work.

    So coming back to the question of subject matter, how much does subject matter necessitate a particular style? In Scheper-Hughes dramatic language she describes her monograph as dealing with ‘death, horror, and madness’ and relating to key aspects of the project of anthropology – to questions of how far cultural relativism can and ought to be pushed?

  2. November 13, 2012 at 5:11 am #

    This is such a great question, Jenna! I’ve been thinking about this a little in terms of my own work on Wikipedia deletions. At the face of it, you wouldn’t really think that it is as dramatic or even important as the issues in Death without Weeping. But when I’ve spoken with people who have had material deleted and especially those who have been banned, I get this deep sense of pain and disappointment from them that humanizes the issue in a really intense way. I’m not saying it is as critical as the ‘death, horror, and madness’ in Brazilian favelas like Bom Jesus but I do think that even the driest subjects can connect to humanness in important ways. I think that’s why you suggested this book, right? Because your own work (‘Invisible Users’) shows this deep connection to what is essentially human in relationships around the technological “thing” too. In the beginning you think it’s just about computers and mobile phones in a particular place. But it’s so much more, right? I guess, getting that across where you’re not worried about sounding over-dramatic is the key. I often find myself holding back on the (dramatic?) human part when I’m telling some (academic) audiences about the project. So that is pretty telling. I guess I’m afraid that a) I might be over-dramatizing (I tend to be over-dramatic as it is) and b) that it isn’t very ‘academic’ to talk about emotions. I didn’t really think about that until now… Being appropriately personal seems to be the challenge for me, at least.

    • November 13, 2012 at 5:03 pm #

      ARGGGAAA AGGGGG omg this is a lot to process! I’m going through this struggle right now of figuring out how to write up my research – like what style do I use.

      I really allowed grad school to screw with my head – like i started thinking I had to sound more “academic.” But I started to realize that I was producing shit work that was full of external expectations that I had internalized as my own. I want to maintain ethnographic authority in terms of writing up my observations clearly and engaging in grounded theory work. But somehow I allowed the culture of American Sociology and my dept (think very causal models of culture) and the pressure to publish to get into my head. My own writing was so devoid of passion – the passion that I experienced and witnessed in my fieldsite – the pain, the sorrows, and happiness – all of it – was gone from my writing. In my attempts to sound “Academic” – I lost my ethnographic authenticity.

      I love Death Without Weeping because it was full of passion – the dead babies fall into your lap – it makes you ask WTF is wrong with this situation? Why? What explanation could possibly explain this? Then you read her observations, and you think shit, we do this too under diff contexts. How are we immune to horror in our daily lives? What kind of miseries have we normalized?

      What I got out of reading Nancy’s book is that letting your participants speak, and talking about your process, is ok. I like how she balanced analysis, personal stories, participants stories, and facts – and she did all this and produced a passionate ethnographic monograph. I don’t think I will meet my expectations to write passionately in my dissertation – because by the time I cross off all the academic t’s and i’s of lit reviews, justifying research design, operationalizing variables, backing up arguments – I will be totally devoid of passion myself. But I will be conscious of it. I’ll make sure the book version is filled with passion! (which means it may not look like an academic book…)

      Jenna and Heather, your points really make me think of Ruth Behar’s Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology that Breaks Your Heart. She argues that anthropology has lost its voice. It’s so caught up in the pressures of tenure, journal publications, and objective social sciences, that it has become depersonalized. She says this is alarming because the extreme distancing of the ethnographer from the fieldsite – a la Malinkowski style ethnography – has produced an ethnographer who is not willing to be vulnerable to the transformations that happen in the field.

      She isn’t saying that all ethnographers need to do this, and is sometimes quite critical of the over-personalizing found in a lot of post-modern ethnography, but she is advocating for ethnographers to be more vulnerable.

      Some sections of her book:
      pg 12
      “No one objects to autobiography, as such, as a genes in its own right. What bothers critics is the insertion of personal stories into what we have been taught to think of as the analysis of impersonal social facts. Throughout most of the twentieth century, in scholarly fields ranging from literary criticism to anthropology to law, the reigning paradigms have traditionally called for distance, objectivity, and abstraction. The worst sing was to be ‘too personal.'”

      pg 13

      “Writing vulnerably takes as much skill, nuance, and willingness to follow through on all the ramifications of a complicated idea as does writing invulnerably and distantly. I would aw it takes yet grater skill The worst thing that can happen in an invulnerable text is that it will be boring. But when an author has made herself or himself vulnerable, the stakes are higher: a boring self revelation, one that fails to move the reader, is more than embarrassing; it is humiliating…That doesn’t require a full-length autobiography, but it does require a keen understanding of what aspects of the self are the most important filters though which one perceives the world and, more particularly, the topic being studied. Efforts at self-revelation flop not because the personal voice has been used, but because it has been poorly used, leaving unscritinzed the connection, intellectual and emotions, between the observer and the observed.

      pg 16
      When you write vulnerably, other response vulnerably. A different sent of problems and predicaments arise which would never surface in response to more detached writing. What is the writer’s responsibility to those who are moved by he rewriting? …Should I feel good that my writing makes a reader break out crying? Does an emotional response lessen or enhance intellectual understanding?”

      pg 18 “How, I asked–of my colleague and of myself –might we make the ethnography as passionate as our autobiographical stories? What would that take? And how might we unsettle expectations by writing about ourselves with more detachment and about others with all the fire of feelings? Can we give both the observers and the observed a chance at tragedy?”

      pg 25 “Indeed, a recent trend among some anthropologists is to work as overseers of large teams of assistants on big research projects, with themes ranging from multigenerational perspectives on women’s’ perceptions of their bodies to the role played by race and class in achieving academic success among high school students of different ethnic groups. The tendency is to depersonalize one’s connection to the field, to treat ethnographic work (only a small part of which is done personally by the principal investigator) as that which is “other” to the “self,” and to accumulate masses of data that can be compared, contrasted, charted, and serve as a basis for policy recommendations, or at least as a critique of existing practices. This is not the only depersonalizing trend. A number of anthropologists accord prestige value to “high theory” and produce accounts that are starkly unpeopled about concepts like neocolonialism, transnationalism, and postmodernism, among other “isms.” Still others, as I once did, have retreated to history, to the quiet of the archives and the study of the past, where presumably an observer can do less damage, not have to be quite so disturbingly present.

      Clearly vulnerability isn’t for everyone. Nor should it be. Anthropology is wide-ranging enough to include many different ways of witnessing. But it seems to me that some of these depersonalizing trends reflect a fear that the personal turn in the academy as gone too far and must be stopped before all hell breaks loose. But hell, I fear, has already broken loose: autobiography has emerged, for better or worse, as the key form of storytelling in our time, with everyone doing it, from Shirley MacLaine to Colin Powell to professors of French and psychiatry. Isn’t it a pity that scholars, out of some sense of false superiority, should try to rise above it all?”


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