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

4.09  ·  Rating details ·  289 Ratings  ·  25 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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Mar 28, 2011 rated it liked it
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
Apr 30, 2014 rated it really liked it
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….
May 07, 2015 rated it it was amazing
I should preface my review by saying that anyone who read this book hoping for a traditional ethnography, will be disappointed. It's not that kind of book.

With that being said, I loved this book. I think that the conversation that this book raises, about how anthropologists situate themselves within their research and the personal experience of fieldwork, is an important one to have in anthropology. We are not so distanced from that which we study, that our research won't affect us.

Side note: I
Eliot Fiend
This is a beautiful weaving of reflections on anthropology (as a field right now) and Behar's own fieldwork in the US, Spain, and elsewhere and and experience as a Cuban-American. I read it for school but for general reading, if you are interested in anthropology, it's great.
May 22, 2017 rated it it was ok
Not worth finishing. "The Girl in the Cast" is a brilliant and moving piece of memoir, but I found all of the other essays rambling, ineffectual, and self-involved.
Feb 11, 2008 rated it did not like it
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
Theresa Malloy
Feb 17, 2016 rated it it was amazing
This was a book for class, and it was so beautifully written. Ruth Behar is an ethnographer who argues it is important to be vulnerable when writing and reading. She gives intensely personal examples about dealing with her grandfather's death, surviving a traumatic car accident and returning to Cuba to connect with the country she left as a young child. Her raw vulnerability really resonated with me and made me understand a lot about why I chose to write some of the stories I did, what personall ...more
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
May 02, 2009 rated it really liked it
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
Apr 22, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: reference
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.
Jul 11, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: anthropology
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.
Feb 24, 2010 rated it it was ok
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.
Oct 18, 2008 rated it really liked it
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.
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...
Sep 24, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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.
Jun 17, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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.
Emer Mccarthy
Sep 13, 2014 rated it did not like it
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.
Jan 04, 2008 added it
Lesson: There is only a narrow crawl-space between auto-biography and ethnography.
Aug 10, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Every essay breaks your heart.
Apr 26, 2013 rated it really liked it
very good book with an interesting perspective
Sep 05, 2008 rated it it was amazing
This book is introspective, passionate, and raw; Ruth Behar crafts a masterpiece of authenticity in this autoethnography.
May 25, 2012 rated it it was ok
I didn't finish the entire book; I just couldn't get into it.
Dinah W
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Jun 23, 2008
William Lopez
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Jul 07, 2014
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May 07, 2017
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Feb 01, 2013
rated it it was amazing
Jan 21, 2009
Erin Severs
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Sep 03, 2011
rated it it was ok
Mar 23, 2010
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Apr 26, 2011
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“I was touched by the honesty and courage that I felt it took for you, an academic, to write a book as personal as this one.” 1 likes
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