Happy 25th Anniversary to “The Vulnerable Observer”!
October 15, 2021
A Q&A with Ruth Behar
Award-winning anthropologist Ruth Behar’s groundbreaking book, The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart, turns twenty-five this year! Eloquently interweaving ethnography and memoir, Behar offers a new theory and practice for humanistic anthropology—an anthropology that is lived and written in a personal voice. She did so with the hope that it would lead us toward greater depth of understanding and feeling, not only in contemporary anthropology, but in all acts of witnessing. (Spoiler alert: yes, it has!) For Hispanic-Latinx Heritage Month, Beacon Broadside editor Christian Coleman caught up with her to chat about the book’s anniversary.
Christian Coleman: The Vulnerable Observer was pioneering when it first came out in 1996 because it proposed the concept of vulnerability in social research. Why was this concept so novel at the time?
Ruth Behar: So much has changed in the last twenty-five years that sometimes we forget how different were the paradigms we worked with before. Anthropologists were taught that they had to approach their research from a distance. This meant silencing the story of your entanglement with a specific set of people, in a specific place, in a specific moment in time, and how knowledge gets produced in this messy, haunting, unrepeatable process. By concealing your presence, your feelings of vulnerability as an observer, and how the social world you observe connects with your own life, you would supposedly be “unobtrusive” and “neutral” and “more objective.” But that stance asked that you deny any self-positioning regarding gender, race, class, nationality, and other markers of identity, that you somehow be an invisible observer.
I felt extremely uncomfortable attempting to pursue research from this perspective. I questioned it from the start. In The Vulnerable Observer, I gave voice to the alienation I had felt about the detachment I was supposed to maintain when carrying out social research and writing about my experience. But that detached approach to social research was so ingrained that, when the book came out and I spoke of being vulnerable, some academic readers were taken aback. The word “vulnerable” wasn’t in wide circulation. Scholars weren’t supposed to be emotionally invested in social research, and if you were, that was not something you’d ever write about.
Over time, a paradigm shift took place, and now anthropologists, social researchers, and writers embrace their vulnerability and describe their self-positioning and speak openly of the emotional consequences of their work. The Vulnerable Observer has been part of this sea change. Since the publication of the book, the usage of the word “vulnerable” has gone through a boom in the English language. In anthropology alone, its usage has increased by 400%. The Vulnerable Observer played a role in spurring the word—and the concept—into our lexicon.
CC: Where did the idea of bringing vulnerability to anthropology come from? How did you find yourself developing this concept for your work?
RB: In the late 1980s, early 1990s, several scholars of diverse backgrounds challenged the norm of writing in third person, unwilling to accept self-erasure, and they wrote their scholarship in their unique personal voices. This was a dramatic shift. Much of the academic world rejected it, dismissing the idea of writing personally as “self-indulgent.” In anthropology, it was taboo, because the discipline prides itself on turning its gaze on the lives of those being observed, not on the observer; and we study and advocate for people in the plural, as collectives, communities, cultures. To call attention to yourself was not just distracting but shameful. Arguments arose as to whether work that incorporated the story of the anthropologist into the story of those being studied was “really” anthropology. I was so vexed about this that I ended up writing an essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education in 1994 that was called precisely, “Dare We Say ‘I’?”
The shift in the academy was a response to the late 1960s rallying cry: “The personal is political.” It was such an obvious assertion and yet so radical. Feminist scholars and African American and Latinx poets and writers began to tell stories about their lives in first-person voices that had never been told before, raising awareness about sexism and misogyny, racism, and inequality. Autobiographical writing was embraced across the disciplines, in medicine, law, and art. In anthropology in this era, there were calls to decolonize the discipline and do away with the idea of the “other” as the focus of our studies. This led to self-reflexive work that connected the personal with the ethnographic, and eventually, to the notion of autoethnography. And then the “literary turn” took place, which drew attention to the fact that anthropologists are writers constructing narratives of their journeys and so are always implicated in how they represent the people they are observing.
Allowing the personal voice into scholarship, into anthropology, was crucial for letting vulnerability come through the gates, too. Once you are writing as “I,” you can address your own vulnerability as well as the vulnerability of those who’ve let you into their lives. For me, writing as “I” made me want to know what it means to observe others and write about them. Who am “I” to have the right to do that? The concept of vulnerability grew out of my need to try to answer that fraught question.
Through experiences carrying out research in Spain, Mexico, and Cuba, I came to realize that the psychic state of the observer, the reality of what was going on in my life at the moment of observation, had consequences for what I could and couldn’t see, what I could and couldn’t understand. And this knowledge needed to be worked through in the writing, because it is in the retrospective act of writing that you process the multidimensional and sensorial experience of doing anthropological research. To do that research, you enter into relationships with people who are kind enough to let you into their lives. In the course of getting to know about their dreams and struggles, you come to care about them greatly. You form deep attachments to both the people and the places where you’ve lived, often for many years, returning over and over. In the end, as I’ve said in the book somewhere, what we’re enacting is our shared mortality. That’s the deep core of the concept of vulnerability.
CC: Have you seen the effect the book has had on readers over the course of twenty-five years? Do you have any favorite stories about people who have connected with it or use and recommend it as a reference?
RB: It’s been humbling to learn that The Vulnerable Observer is a widely-cited book, with thousands of citations. The book is described as a “classic,” as a book that sparked “an epiphany.” The Vulnerable Observer has influenced scholars not just in anthropology and sociology (where it is included in many qualitative research guides, handbooks, scholarly reflections, and ethnographies), but also across many disciplines well-beyond anthropology, ranging from psychology to education to health to rhetoric (and even to management studies). Readers say that the book poignantly put a label on something anthropologists and other scholars had been grappling with but had not coalesced around a fitting term for the practice of thinking through and laying bare one’s subjectivity and personal connection to research. Even academic readers who are critical describe the book as “the right way” to do vulnerable work, incorporating only those personal disclosures that add to the ethnographic account and analysis, rather than distract from it. I’ve been struck by how many scholars and writers borrow the book’s title for their own work, writing about “Trying to be a Vulnerable Observer,” or “Reflections of a Vulnerable Observer” or “When Collecting Data Can Break Your Heart.”
Beyond the academy, the book has engaged journalists, writers, and general readers. I was delighted to see The Vulnerable Observer included in a list of “The Best Books That Capture the Complexities of Writing About the Real World.” Travel writer Tim Hannigan, the author of that list, described my work as offering “a recognition of the way your own personal and cultural baggage colours your way of seeing, and of the way that you, the writer, are always part of the story.” A reviewer on Goodreads noted, “This book is introspective, passionate, and raw. Ruth Behar crafts a masterpiece of authenticity in this autoethnography.”
Throughout the years, I’ve received many kind letters and emails praising the book. I’ve met students and colleagues all over the world who’ve been influenced and inspired by the book. That has been so moving, and totally unexpected. I admit it’s a little scary when someone tells me they decided to go into anthropology after reading The Vulnerable Observer. That’s actually happened several times, and it’s a lot of responsibility to bear. I mean, what if they’re not happy once they’re pursuing a career in anthropology? But it’s consoling to know that people bring their own desires and needs to their reading of the book and draw the energy they’re seeking from it. Just two days ago, I received an email from a young professor who’s teaching a seminar on ethnography, and they said, “Your work and words often serve as a reminder for me to feed my soul. . . Every time I re-read or read anew your work, it reminds me of who I want to be when I ‘grow up’ someday. Thanks for what YOU gave us—both my students and me.”
CC: And lastly, what surprised you about The Vulnerable Observer that you didn’t foresee or anticipate when it was first published?
RB: I didn’t expect that The Vulnerable Observer would end up on many course syllabi. I’ve learned that numerous students read it each semester. Or at least they’re assigned to read it. I hope they actually read it! Evidently, they are often asked to write about it. You can even purchase a student essay about the book online.
About Ruth Behar
Ruth Behar, ethnographer, essayist, poet, and filmmaker, is professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan. The recipient of a MacArthur Fellows Award and a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, Behar is the author of several books, including The Vulnerable Observer. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter at @ruthbehar and visit her website.