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The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart
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The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart

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4.06 of 5 stars 4.06  ·  rating details  ·  159 ratings  ·  22 reviews
Eloquently interweaving ethnography and memoir, award-winning anthropologist Ruth Behar offers a new theory and practice for humanistic anthropology. She proposes an anthropology that is lived and written in a personal voice. She does so in the hope that it will lead us toward greater depth of understanding and feeling, not only in contemporary anthropology, but in all act...more
Paperback, 208 pages
Published November 6th 1997 by Beacon Press (first published January 6th 1997)
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Jennifer
An interesting and challenging book that I didn't always agree with, but the author grapples with hard questions about anthropology and the role of the anthropologist (and thus the role of any social scientific researcher in recent times). In a set of essays that revolve around the question "how much of the researcher should be in the research?" Behar explores how her personal background and experiences inform her research. Her discussions are clear, frank, and evocative, and my only problem wit...more
Alex
The man who recommended this book to me is one of the smartest men I've ever met. He did so, I believe, in knowing that it would teach me how not to write. I wouldn't be entirely against reflexive ethnography if I didn't feel it becomes as biased as it often does.

Behar needs to learn the definition of "ethnography" and turn the focus off of herself and onto her subjects. Instead of making a common thread throughout the book of how she struggled to get her tenure as a minority, why not talk about...more
Annalvogt
I don’t know if this book made me think and understand anthropology per se in a new way; I am tempted to also place this book in the genre of “academic memoir.” It encouraged me to think about the forces that have shaped my life, as a Mennonite, as a woman, as a privileged outsider, and how those forces are always at work as I interact and attempt to understand the world around me here, in Colombia and in Canada. New ideas for my own memoir….
Heather
In a summer of lethargy and aimlessness, tinged with the depression that comes in the most frighting of liminal moments, also known as the months following graduation, this book has rekindled my love and passion for anthropology. I hope one day I can write as well as Behar, with the same kind of love and depth she exhibits in every essay in this book.
Jessica Colund
I only got a chance to read a couple of the essays in this book before I had to return it to the library, but I loved the overall premise. Behar's first-person anthropological essays are perfect for the postmodern generation of intellectuals. Why pretend that we're unbiased, dispassionate observers when clearly we're human beings who are deeply affected when we witness war and poverty and other tragedies? Why has the Academy considered this distance to be preferable? I'm not an anthropologist my...more
"Stars"
A favorite and resonating excerpt comes from Carmelita Tropicana's comedic act, "Milk of Amnesia": I am like a tourist in my own country. Everything is new. I walk everywhere hoping I will recall something. Anything. I have this urge to recognize and be recognized. To fling my arms around one of those ceiba trees and say I remember you...I want a crack in the sidewalk to open up and say, yes, I saw you when you jumped over in your patent leather shoes holding onto your grandfather's index finger...more
Vanessa
Behar writes, “In our time, in this special period, this periodo especial, where bearing testimony and witnessing offer the only, and still slippery, hold on truth, every form of representation must pay homage to its roots in the ethnographic experience of talking, listening, transcribing, translating, and interpreting” (163). Yes, I agree...
Meredith
Every essay breaks your heart.
Zoe
My mom sent this book to me. So far it's great. It brings back all the texts I loved in my undergraduate studies in cultural anthropology, especially from my favorite class ever: Psycho-Cultural Perceptions of Emotion.

6/26 - Mom, wherever you are, I really liked this book. It was a perfect blend of personal and intellectual narrative. It was very inspiring. Thanks.
Scott
Perhaps she was too vulnerable. I did not appreciate the ability to see "behind the curtain" of ethnography. I realize that these rather potent biases exists in all anthropologists, but I felt like her story (perhaps self absorption) foregrounded the stories and lived experiences of those she was studying.
Emer Mccarthy
I nearly expired from almost the purest form of boredom I have experienced. I usually love this type of book but this was awful, excruciating, even.
Merrily
I loved this collection of essays on the perils and joys of writing & studying as an anthropologist. She dismisses the possibility and value of being a totally objective observer, but recommends the participatory role, which enhances our understanding of those studied.
Kristen
Excellent exploration of the recent - and often internally contested - shift in anthropology to "viewing identification, rather than difference, as the key defining image of our theory and practice." The shift is what fascinates me about the discipline.
Nina
This book broke my heart and pretty much trigger a nervous breakdown and a semester off from grad school. I am better now. This book invoked emotions in me that I forgot I had. I think I am going to read it again, this time with a clear head.
Jillian
I think the best chapters of the book was the first and last chapters, which really pushed my thinking about the concept of "vulnerable observer." The rest of the book helped me think about anthropology through a different lens...
Robin
This book is introspective, passionate, and raw; Ruth Behar crafts a masterpiece of authenticity in this autoethnography.
Nicole
Jan 04, 2008 Nicole added it
Lesson: There is only a narrow crawl-space between auto-biography and ethnography.
Paige
I didn't finish the entire book; I just couldn't get into it.
Nattha
Thanks for lending this to me, Elissa. I loved it!
Laura
very good book with an interesting perspective
Jess Roz
This book is incredible.
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