Nancy Scheper-Hughes Interview: Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
Photo by Jane Scherr
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It was natural that when you decided to come back to school, you would go into anthropology, and your teacher had moved to Berkeley, is that right?
Yes, my mentor Hortense Powdermaker retired, came to Berkeley, and kept in touch with me while I was in the South and said, "You know, Nancy, sooner or later you're going to get tired of this activism. I did. When you do, come to Berkeley and work for me." So I worked for her briefly as a research assistant, and then finished up my interrupted undergraduate degree, and then entered the graduate program in anthropology.
You've answered the question I was going to ask you which was, why did you choose anthropology? But in characterizing your own work in an interview somewhere else, you said, "My books are an attempt to strip away our common everyday understanding of the human condition. I like to interrogate these common understandings to say perhaps we need to rethink what it means to be normal, what it means to be mad, what it means to be male or female, what it means to be a mother." Is that what you've tried to pursue in your work?
I'd say that's one of the main themes of my work, that we have certain assumptions about what motherhood is about, what madness is about, what the norm is. Anthropologists are particularly well situated, and always have been, to question those assumptions. I think some of my professors at Berkeley were surprised, since I had had a very politicized background and was involved in People's Park protests and the Third World Strike at Berkeley, that I chose such a strange topic, to go to rural Ireland and study madness among bachelor farmers as a projection of cultural themes.
And why did you do that?
I'd always been fascinated by Irish culture and society, and by literature. In fact, you asked what books had influenced me; reading the Irish poets and reading the great autobiographical books that had come out of the Blasket Islands was always something that I enjoyed.
I could not go back to Brazil at that point, which was the obvious place to go, because I didn't only minister to people's bodies, I was politically active in Brazil. I worked with a peasant union that was banned, I worked with what was left of the Peasant League Movement in Northeast Brazil. I worked with the beginnings, the stirrings, of a liberation theology. As a result, the Fourth Army came in and ended the work, at least temporarily, and put some of the people in jail, interrogated me, and said that I had to leave the country as an agitator. And I'm sorry now that I accepted the help of the [U.S.] government. The Peace Corps management came in and said that if I left, then all of Peace Corps would leave Brazil, and so I was allowed to stay and finish my work. But I could not go back to Brazil [while the military remained in power].
I chose Ireland because I had gone back to those Grimm's Fairy Tale stories, a somewhat romanticized notion about what life in rural economy and ecology would look like. I wanted to have contact at least once with a people who really lived as semi-peasants or post-peasants, whatever you want to call them, on small land holdings, and to see what kinds of community grew out of that, what kinds of social relations. Initially I wanted simply to study gender and sexuality, because the Irish were known for having very late age of marriage and I was curious how that was socialized in young, wild, raw, sexualized bodies. I was influenced by certain Freudian assumptions. And I thought, well, this must take a powerful set of institutions. But when I arrived in Ireland I was, within two days, visiting a psychiatrist who was the head of a large psychiatric facility in Cork on my way out to the west, and he said, "Oh, you Americans are really preoccupied with the question of sex. Why don't you look at a much more important issue? Why do we have so much madness coming out of western Ireland?" And so I immediately took up the challenge, and with these psychiatric hospital censuses in hand, I went to a kind of a typical community, if you can speak of that, on the western end of the Dingle Peninsula, and tried to see what was going on in terms of the basic subsistence patterns, the economic and material basis of people's lives, what was going on inside families. And what was happening between the sexes, what was Irish sexuality about, and ultimately, could cultural anthropology help answer this puzzle? Up until that point, Irish doctors were assuming the high rate of schizophrenia was perhaps a result of a brain drain or a genetic dregs hypothesis, a terribly negative view of rural Ireland, that the best had left and the worst had stayed behind, intermarried, and then produced this terrible problem.
Now to answer this question, help us understand. You moved your family to Ireland, this small village. Help us understand what field research means, because you did it in this particular case. In terms of you family and the life you undertook, you really integrated yourself. You were, to use your own words, "an intimate stranger." Is that right?
Right, right. Sometimes Hortense referred to "stranger" and "friend," and sometimes I think it's the "traitor and the friend," because what I've learned after all of my years of writing about communities in which we form deep friendships and relationships is that the process of writing itself is, of course, a form of objectification, and people are never completely satisfied with what you have to say about them. So it's a relationship built in terms of a kind of a clash of interpretations, a collision of cultures, and I do think that that's both the value and the danger of anthropology. An outsider comes from out of nowhere, comes into the community, asks permission to stay and to live in, and to basically be a kind of an eye on the community.
And you do a lot of interviewing. I mean, you're constantly talking to people about --
But not the way you interview!!
I see. What is the difference?
Well, in the classical pattern, which I don't necessarily do today, you're basically just living with people and "overhearing." And only raising questions, perhaps, after six months of living in. So you try to get it on the fly. You try, as far as possible, to integrate yourself into the community. Of course you never really are, it's a myth. By the way, it's not only the outsider who needs to be integrated in. [The outsider needs it] just to understand, and also to live. You can't live in a tiny community of 400 people [without being integrated into it] because you're dependant on them. People are dependent on each other for who has the turf, who sells the chickens, you know; so you really do have to be integrated. But for a small Irish isolated community, they need to integrate you as well, because they don't know how to make sense [of the relationship] otherwise. You're not a tourist. So it's a very fragile trust.
So you go through a period where, in a sense, they feel comfortable with you. And you in turn are learning what questions to ask them to understand what's going on.
Right, and you talked about my family. I suppose I wouldn't have been accepted at all if it weren't for my family. That is, it was a normalizing thing, that I came ...
And your husband came and taught ...
He taught school. It was a little, tiny secondary school that was the only school available for the rural children on the Dingle Peninsula who didn't have money or means to go to a private school or to travel. So he taught history and he actually taught religion for the priest who didn't want to teach the class, although Michael was not trained as a Catholic so it was a rather odd version of religion that he was giving in the classroom.
And your children, you brought the children ...
Brought the children. They were between the ages of three months and four and a half, I think. So they were basically on my back [in a Gerry pack] and being carried in the front [in a Snugli]. And the third was a little toddler. But the toddler, Jennifer, went to the local school because children started school there at the age of four. And it was really through all those engagements around the family that I was able to do my work, although I have to say a good deal of my interviewing took place in the pub. And that was quite a shock, because the farmers who went [were] bachelor farmers, males. Women were supposed to go in a back room and maybe have a little sherry. But the fact that I would take turns with Mike, my husband, and come to the pub meant that I probably ruined the first three months of their nights out. I didn't go every night. But then when they became accustomed to me I was brought into the group, and I know it sounds like a hopelessly romantic trope that you become, for a woman, an "honorary male." But I can honestly say that that was the case, and I know that the men in the pub completely forgot that I was a woman or that I was a married woman. And I learned their gestures. I learned to sigh the way they did. I learned to wrap my arms around them without having any, you know, sexual meaning at all but rather solidarity when men were singing political songs. And it was really quite an amazing experience to have been accepted that way.
Now, back in the sixties you had obviously experienced the women's movement here. Did that affect you in what you were seeing, did that make you more comfortable in this process? Did it empower you to better see the strength of individual women there, which you talk about in your recent essay?
Yes, I was certainly exposed to feminism.
Probably the civil rights movement and some of the other political movements affected me somewhat more than the feminist movement, until later. And in my later work I would say, in Brazil, certainly the questions I was raising had to do with what does it mean to be a woman under conditions of horrible scarcity. But I would say that I'm a feminist who raises questions and approaches the world in a way, as my friend Karen Sachs once said, that no feminist in her right mind would. So I would say that I brought feminist assumptions which allowed me to see that women were not as much troubled in western Ireland as men. And so I actually spent most of my time in Ireland concerned with the bachelor farmers and the young men who were being made to be the caretakers and were, in a sense, in a very feminized position. So perhaps you could say it allowed me to see the made-up-ness of gender, that just because you had an ideology that said that men were dominant in western Ireland didn't mean that that's the way it felt to the young men who were in a transition state in Ireland. Really, what I was observing was the decline and the really utter demise of small-scale farming as Ireland joined the EEC and as this sort of non-productive farming as a way of life was being phased out. And so you had young men that were really caught in a trap where they were being asked to stay home and run a farm and take care of parents, in which there were really no longer any economic rewards for doing so.
And this was the root of the high levels of schizophrenia?
What was going on was a kind of a sorting out. And in a sense, the more vulnerable children were staying behind. I don't think they were chosen in childhood because parents saw schizophrenia in the children or anything like that, but rather that the latter-born child, or the most docile son, the sweetest son, would often be chosen because he would be more malleable. And where the question of schizophrenia comes in, I was very much operating under ... well, I used what was available to me theoretically at the point which was a kind of a psychoanalytic, neo-Freudian-feminist, if you will, approach. And the "double-bind" theory of Gregory Bateson was quite important in terms of understanding communications within the family. I began to see that the young men and not the young women were targeted for a double-binding series of injunctions that was very confusing, especially to a vulnerable child.
So they were both rewarded and punished.
And punished at the same time. They were told that they needed to stay because they were chosen, they were loved, they were wanted. And at the same point, they were told that if they had had more intelligence, if they had had more initiative, if they were like their older brothers and sisters, they would have been out of here, because you were being kept behind for a community and a family life and a village that wasn't thought of as very valuable at all. If the young man decides, "I don't want this anymore ..." -- because by staying they would never be able to marry, because the women were leaving in droves -- not only their families but also the local power structure, which would be the priest and it would be the teachers, [all] would chime in. They'd give a nickname to the child: "You're Taig the Farmer." But they were told [that] it's all right that they won't marry because they really were not very attractive to begin with. Well, if they decide to leave in any case, then the double injunction comes in. "How could you leave? You're a traitor to the only thing that really matters." So you're damned if you do and damned if you don't. And what I found was that when I went to the county mental hospital and I began to study the first episodes of schizophrenia, it was a very high prevalence of males and a high prevalence of targeted farm inheritors.
Next page: Anthropological Studies: Infant Mortality in Brazil
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Conor Cruise O'Brien: "Scheper-Hughes and Irish historian and statesman Conor Cruise O'Brien. Dublin, 1999."
Mick Neill: "Return to Ireland: Scheper-Hughes with Irishman Mick Neill, by Mick's mound of turf. No shortage of heat this winter! An Clochan, County Kerry, 1999; photo by Aiden Mulcahy."
Family: "Scheper-Hughes and her children preparing to go to Ireland (passport photo)."