Nancy Scheper-Hughes Interview: Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Studying the Human Condition: Habits of a Militant Anthropologist: Conversation with Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Professor of Anthropology, U.C. Berkeley; 12/14/99 by Harry Kreisler.

Photo by Jane Scherr

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Anthropological Insights

In a recent essay to a new edition of the Ireland book, you quote the Irish poet, Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney. And you say, "To begin with, I wanted the truth to life to possess a concrete reliability, and I rejoiced most when the poem seemed most direct, an up-front representation of the world it stood in for or stood up to or stood its ground against." That's really a statement about the work that you're doing.

Yes. I suppose this would be very contested by many of the postmodernist anthropologists who would say that representation is never a direct sort of thing. It's obviously mediated through the kind of person you are and the various life experiences you bring. But I would have to say that I still believe that there are better facts and weaker facts, and better representations and weaker representations, and I did believe that the one obligation of the anthropologist was to try, insofar as possible, to give a close-to-the-bone reading of what life feels like for different groups of people with whom you wish to cast your lots for the period of time you're there, even though the truths, so to speak -- contested truths, partial truths, fragmented truths, whatever -- were often brutal.

I think I've tended to view the social world from a kind of topsy-turvy position. I tend to look at the world through the vulnerable, through the mad, through the excluded, through the angel children of Northeast Brazil. book cover What a way to approach family life! Some women have felt that it didn't express enough solidarity with women, but I don't think that's true, because I feel that I probably know the women of the Alto do Cruzeiro as well as I know any of my closest women friends. We're always "other" to each other. I can't permeate someone else's soul to understand them, but I feel that the women trusted me enough to share with me things that were very painful for them. And also to show that even people with their backs up against the wall, having to make terrible decisions, still have decisions to make. If we were to say instead that everything was the result exclusively of the social economic structure (which to me is always at the base), that denies people the little bit of praxis that they have. And so, perhaps it was considered a cruel sort of thing to go to people who are already suffering so much to ask them, "How do you behave when you don't have enough?" It's like asking questions of people who came out of a concentration camp. But people still make moral choices, and I suppose it helps the anthropologist understand more about who we are as a species by looking at people in extremis, as it were. And of course, I felt that the women were making choices that any of us would be forced to make were we living under those conditions, that it was not something lacking in them that forced them to make the choices, it was the conditions that over determined the choices they had to make.

The people you look at in these extreme situations, what is the key to their surviving? Is there a common element here?

Some of the questions I raised about the women of the Alto were the wrong questions. I looked for resistance. I looked to see, how can people accept these conditions? And I looked to the history of social movements and struggles, and found that they were very few and far between, had mostly been extinguished very readily by the state and by the government. And then [the women] directed me away from questions of resistance to questions of existence. They were existentialists, in a way. And what maintained them was simply and purely a love of the life they had, as limited as it was. So Biu, one of the three very key women friends/informants that I got to know, after going through so many childhood deaths, going through abandonment by two or three different men, I see her putting on a short skirt and getting ready to dance carnival. And me questioning her and saying, "And you, Biu, are going to dance carnival?" And she says, "Yes, I will dance, I will sing, and I will play. And the rich people will say, look at that pobrecito " -- look at that pobrezinho in Portuguese -- "like me, who can still have a good time." And she said, "But I can, and that's my strength, that I still will dance, even in the face of death."

I think that's what you have to celebrate, and what I had to celebrate, at the end of Death Without Weeping was the fact that they, like Dilsey in Faulkner's Sound and the Fury, I think that's where it's from, that they endured and that they survived. And that it was resilience, I guess is the question you're asking, rather than resistance or a sense of struggle or improvement or whatever. They just wanted to make it through, and hopefully as many of their children to make it through with them as well.

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