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The Vulnerable Observer


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About the Author

Ruth Behar-ethnographer, essayist, editor, and poet-is professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She gained national prominence with her book Translated Woman- Crossing the Border with Esperanza's Story. Her honors include a MacArthur Fellows Award and a John Simon Guggenheim fellowship.


Behar, of Cuban Jewish descent and the author/editor of several books on feminist anthropology (e.g., Women Writing Culture, Univ. of California, 1995), has produced another title of immense importance to those who work with human subjects. The underlying thread of this volume is the question, "Where does the observer fit into the practice of participant observation?" Unlike Clifford Geertz (Interpretation of Cultures, 1973), Behar is a "native" observer, one of a new generation of anthropologists who come from the cultures they study. She demonstrates the concept of "vulnerable observer," or one who comes to ethnography with all one's cultural heritage and emotions at play. Behar's essay on the death of her grandfather while she was studying Spanish peasants is a classic example of this new "autobiographical" methodology. Interested readers might also want to look at In the Field: Readings on the Field Research Experience (Praeger, 1996). The present work will be a welcome addition to academic medicine and nursing, social work, anthropology, and allied health collections.‘Cynthia D. Bertelsen, Indexing Svcs., Blacksburg, Va.

"Behar has convinced me that ethnographic empathy will produce an anthropology that has greater meaning than the distanced and detached academic anthropology of the past." --Barbara Fisher, The Boston Globe

"Her luminous essays build cultural bridges and challenge conventional ways of doing anthropology."--Publishers Weekly "As 'a woman of the border' . . . [Behar] infuses her vision with insight, candor and compassion." --Diane Cole, The New York Times Book Review "A story that engages the emotions. Making the past visible, she preserves it against oblivion." --Stanley Trachtenberg, The Washington Post Book World "Behar's collection of essays assesses the impact of emotion and experience on the process of research and writing, and on the relationship between the observer and the observed. . . . Intensely moving." --L. Beck, Choice "In six strongly emotional essays, Behar makes a compelling case for the importance of revealing 'the self who observes.'" --Anne Valentine Martino, The Ann Arbor News "[Her] insistent looking back is what makes Ruth Behar's vision of anthropology so compelling. Memories do not vanish; they recede and leave traces. The anthropologist who makes herself vulnerable to these indications makes the world a more intelligible and hopeful place." --Judith Bolton-Fasman, The Jerusalem Report "Twenty years since its publication, I'm still recommending The Vulnerable Observer to writers, colleagues, and friends. Just as brave and profound as it was then, it is now, continuing to offer insights into our shared humanity that are meaningful to scholar, scientist, and poet alike."--Richard Blanco, inaugural poet and author of For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet's Journey

Behar was filled with self-loathing and guilt when her grandfather died of cancer in Miami Beach in 1989 while she was away doing anthropological fieldwork on death customs in a Spanish village. That personal tragedy led this University of Michigan anthropology professor to jettison the notion of the anthropologist as semidetached participant-observer, and instead to champion the "vulnerable observer," the ethnographic fieldworker who spells out, and works through, his or her emotional involvement with the subject under study. These six impassioned, intensely personal essays exemplify this subjective approach to varying degrees, though less successfully than Behar did in Translated Woman, the life story of a Mexican street peddler. A Cuban Jew whose grandparents emigrated from Russia, Poland and Turkey in the 1920s, Behar moved to New York City with her family, fleeing Castro's communism, in 1962 when she was nearly five. In one searing essay she discusses the family's 1966 car accident which left her with a broken leg; an invalid for a year, she later recognized "the body is a homeland," a locus of stored memory and pain. Other pieces deal with her return trips to Cuba, her supportive friendship with a Mexican-American woman, her reconnecting with her Jewish heritage and her charged relationship with her husband and his white Methodist Texan family. Her luminous essays build cultural bridges and challenge conventional ways of doing anthropology. (Jan.)

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