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

Page 6 of 6

Lessons Learned

I've gotten a sense, as you've talked, of the roots of your thinking and your approach to problems, but I'm curious about the courage of the researcher, in this case, you. It takes a lot of courage to do this work in these extreme situations, does it not? You go back to Ireland twenty years later and the community wants you out the door right away. In Brazil, you in a way become a part of these very harsh circumstances and then you have to bring back theories, or come up with theories, that the conventional wisdom doesn't want to buy into. Tell me a little about that.

Well, I think, perhaps anthropologists are a self-selected people who are uncomfortable in their own lives and in their own cultures, their own societies. So perhaps what you're calling "courage" I would call a kind of a desperate search for community life somewhere that makes sense, or some parts of it that make sense to you to bring back to your life. photo caption below: Pa Keane I see us as, I've used a term that Seamus Heaney has used, as hunters and gatherers of human values. I think we're terribly concerned with notions of the good and how to find those and understand those.

I would say that, in many respects, I'm a kind of a phobic person and therefore rather fearful. But I love the field. I love going into the field. There are many uncomfortable moments, the moments when you have to read back to people what you've described, which I take as a kind of a code of ethics, that even if people are illiterate I have to draw pictures or tell stories or bring photographs to let them know how they're being represented and to say, okay, argue this with me. At least I'll try to get your arguments into the book.

In Ireland it was very difficult to go back. I knew that the community was angry about the choice of subject matter, writing about Irish family life and society and community in terms of mental illness, but I felt that it was necessary to go back. I had tried to go back once before about three years after the book was first published. I wrote consistently year after year saying, can I come back now? Can I sit down with you around a table and talk about what I wrote, what you would like me to say about you? Finally I was told I could come back, and went last summer, in '99. I lasted about three weeks before the community began building up [against my presence]. Particularly certain groups within the community whom we would call, perhaps, cultural nationalists who were aligned with the new IRA, very sort of extreme fringe of the IRA who felt that they could make a point in having me more or less run out of the community. I had my protectors but they felt themselves compromised by ... and who knows what would happen to them afterwards if I was continued to be kept on.

Let's say there are students out there who watch this on the web or somewhere and they say, "Hey, I want to do that." What traits, what skills do you need? You obviously have to be able to listen and you have to not be afraid to be around people who are quite different and who go against your preconceptions.

I think you have to have an enormous curiosity. I think that's what drives most of us. And I know I've brought people into the field to visit with me, and they can't believe that I wouldn't be bored sitting through endless meetings or sitting through very long religious performances. And for me these opportunities to sit, to observe, to listen, to be on the sidelines, you know [as Adlai Stevenson once put it], "with a glass of wine in my hand observing," and sometimes being called into the dance. It's a kind of an ecstatic experience for me.

You know, we're sort of used to being on the fringes, so that works alright. But when you can actually be part of something, when you actually find that you can be useful to something, as people would say, occasionally, "You know that stuff you wrote about the pollution of the water of Timbúba? Can we now go together jointly and bring samples of the water and finally get some action about it?" I'd like to believe that the work is of high stakes and it's not just for the sake of writing, but that hopefully it is [a kind of intervention].

All writing is a form of intervention, and hopefully -- you know, in Ireland a result of the book that was very positive is years and years of letters that I've collected from Irish bachelors who write to me. I'm sort of like an anthropological Miss Lonelyhearts. Because they'll tell me about the loneliness and the fact that they thought they were so alone in what they were experiencing, but by reading ... I write books that are accessible, so if you can read at all, and if they are translated (and Death Without Weeping was translated into Spanish, not the Portuguese unfortunately) -- people can recognize themselves. And that's a danger and a risk, but it also leads to a kind of a reflexivity that can be positive as well. So if I felt that everything was negative, I can accept the fact that a community's honor felt, "Why us? Why did you choose us?" But if individuals told me time and again they were hurt or they were devastated, then I would not be able to have the courage to go back and do the work. But the fact is that I know that many people felt liberated by things that they have read [that I have written].

And this sense that you have to clearly put down what it is that you've heard, because your books are beautifully written, where did that skill come from?

Well, I've always loved writing and so I actually had thought about writing fiction and took many fiction-writing classes at Queen's College and found that I could write much better when I was writing from life. So I began to see anthropology as a kind of -- going back to the Museum of Natural History -- as a kind of "natural history" of human life. Ethnographic writing is an art form of its own, and it combines description with an ear for the cadences of language, for the odd way that people put things, and the sense that so many of the people we deal with are organic intellectuals who have not had the opportunity to explain to someone outside the village why life proceeds the way it is. So I often work with people who would have been anthropologists if they had been trained to do it, but they didn't have the opportunity. They intuit almost -- not immediately, but can learn very quickly what this is about and then they begin to help me and begin to say, here's something you need to see. Or they'll sit down with me and reflect on it. So I can't say where the writing comes from, but I can say that in a sense all anthropological ethnographies are written by a host of people who have pointed us in the direction, who have been willing to recite. "Would you mind reciting that poem again?" "Oh, no not the tenth time!" "Well, this time I think I'd like to get it on tape so I can get it exactly."

One final question requiring a short answer, because we're almost through the hour, and that is this tension between theory and practice is something that runs through many traditions. Would you leave us with a comment on how you believe you've integrated this undoubted desire to be an activist to actually do good in the world, to change things, and on the other hand this desire to think, to sit back and reflect?

Well, in an article that I wrote on the "primacy of the ethical," I suggested that anthropology was at base, really, a kind of moral philosophy in a sense. I juxtaposed a very traditional view of the anthropologist as spectator, or the fearless spectator, who is simply sitting there, recording, doing a kind of positivistic science, with a view of anthropology, as now shared I think by many of the younger generation, of anthropology as a kind of witnessing, and that we're accountable for what we say and for what we do, and for hopefully making our writings available to a larger public and to public policy.

Well, I think the anthropologist is always straddling a dichotomy between believing that reflection and understanding is in the nature of an intervention itself, and at times wanting to see a more direct impact on human life. And I've come to see that perhaps the witnessing itself and the writing are maybe the best we can do in terms of an intervention, and to leave the applications to others perhaps more suited to do that than ourselves.

Nancy, thank you very much. I think the body of your work demonstrates that that formula, that solution, that way of doing things is the right one.

Thanks, Harry.

Thank you very much for joining us today. And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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Photo captions

Pa Keane: "Scheper-Hughes with Pa Keane. A quick, last-minute photo before being run out of the village. 'With love to Pa,' her once long-ago boon companion in Peig's pub. Ballynalacken, An Clochan, summer 1999; photo by Nate Hughes."