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THE VULNERABLE OBSERVER by Ruth Behar

THE VULNERABLE OBSERVER

Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart

By Ruth Behar

Pub Date: Jan. 6th, 1997
ISBN: 0-8070-4630-2
Publisher: Beacon

 These readable, insightful essays are linked by the tension between the traditional academic view of anthropology as objective science and accomplished anthropologist Behar's (Univ. of Michigan) desire to admit the subjectivity, or ``vulnerability,'' that often plays a role in the work. One piece describes Behar's ambivalence about leaving her dying grandfather to do fieldwork on culture and death in a small village in Spain. There are touching remembrances of her grandfather, interesting meditations on the aging town of Santa Maria, and reflections on how the author's musings on her grandfather's death increased her understanding of Santa Maria's death rituals. Instead of striving for an unattainable objectivity in her studies, Behar owns up to her emotional baggage, airs it out, and uses it to her advantage. Another essay, perhaps the most compelling, describes her harrowing experience in a car accident that killed five people. The author, then nine years old, spent months immobilized in a body cast. Chastised for complaining, she buried her emotions, which resurfaced in adult life as sudden and crippling agoraphobia. Other essays address Behar's complex relationship with the state of Cuba (she is a Cuban Jew by birth), and how class and other factors form borders even when political borders are not imposed. In the last essay, a defense of ``anthropology that breaks your heart,'' Behar describes a conference at which she defended her methods. Excerpts from her speech are interspersed with her thoughts at the time to create a complex, challenging piece. But the argument between objective and subjective views of anthropology is not completed in these pages. Ultimately, Behar's writings here are more personal essay than anthropological study, failing to clarify the application of her notion of anthropology that breaks your heart.