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Aiden Jones
Aiden Jones

Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Y...



Behar was born in Havana, Cuba in 1956 to a Jewish-Cuban family of Sephardic Turkish, and Ashkenazi Polish and Russian ancestry. She was four when her family immigrated to the US following Fidel Castro's gaining power in the revolution of 1959. More than 94% of Cuban Jews left the country at that time,[4] together with many others of the middle and upper classes. Behar attended local schools and studied as an undergraduate at Wesleyan University, receiving her B.A. in 1977. She studied cultural anthropology at Princeton University, earning her doctorate in 1983.




Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Y...



The Vulnerable Observer recounts Behar's passage to integrating subjective aspects into her anthropological studies. Suffering her grandfather's death while on a field trip to Spain to study funeral practices, she decided the ethnographer could never be fully detached, and needed to become a "vulnerable observer".[13] She argues that the ethnographic fieldworker should identify and work though, his or her own emotional involvement with the subject under study.[13] She strongly critiques conventional ideas of objectivity.[14] She suggested that the ideal of a "scientific," distanced, impersonal mode of presenting materials was incomplete.[14] Other anthropologists, including Claude Levi-Strauss, Georges Devereux, and Clifford Geertz, had also suggested that the researcher had to claim being part of the process more openly. Behar's six personal essays in The Vulnerable Observer are examples of her subjective approach.[13]


In 1985, Behar was working in Mexico when she befriended an Indian witch working as a street peddler.[15] Townspeople said the witch, Esperanza Hernandez, had used black magic to blind her ex-husband after he regularly beat her and then left her for his mistress.[15] Behar's portrayal of Esperanza's story in Translated Woman suggests she alienated her own mother, inspiring Behar to portray Esperanza as a feminist heroine.[15] Esperanza claims she found redemption in a spiritualist cult constructed around Pancho Villa. She blamed pent-up rage about her husband and life as the reason for the deaths in infancy of the first six of her 12 children.[15] Esperanza's rage led her to beat up her husband's lover, throw her son out of the house, beat a daughter for refusing to support her, and disown another son for having an affair with an uncle's ex-mistress because she considered it to be incestuous.[15] Behar reflects on her own life and begins to think that her Latina-gringa conflicts result from a feeling of loss after having tried to model herself according to the American Dream, thus losing some sense of her Cuban Jewish family's past in that island nation.[16] Esperanza's odyssey examines physical borders, margins and separations.[16] Translated Woman contributes to the feminist argument that studying women in anthropology has been undervalued due to traditional academic prejudices that view women-centered analysis as too personally biased.[17]


Eloquently interweaving ethnography and memoir, award-winning anthropologist Ruth Behar offers a new theory and practice for humanistic anthropology. She proposes an anthropology that is lived and written in a personal voice. She does so in the hope that it will lead us toward greater depth of understanding and feeling, not only in contemporary anthropology, but in all acts of witnessing.


This chapter presents critical autoethnography as an innovative approach to conducting research in marginalized, vulnerable communities. Combining autoethnography, ethnography, and critical pedagogy, the researcher becomes a participant in the study, turning inward to examine the Self and the complexities of cultural perspectives through the lens of critical pedagogy. Intense reflexivity and introspection undergird this study of Self as participant, going beyond recounting facts as objectively as possible, as occurs with autobiography, to acknowledging that the researcher is interpreting the facts through cultural perspectives formed through years of sociocultural, socio-historical, socio-political, and socioeconomic events and circumstances. Subsequently, the researcher, more than likely a member of the dominant culture in some categories, is able to understand herself as an oppressor.


In anthropology, which historically exists to 'give voice' to others, there is no greater taboo than self-revelation. The impetus of our discipline, with its roots in Western fantasies about barbaric others, has been to focus primarily on 'cultural' rather than 'individual' realities. The irony is that anthropology has always been rooted in an 'I' - understood as having a complex psychology and history - observing a 'we' that, until recently, was viewed as plural, ahistorical, and nonindividuated. 041b061a72


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