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How We All Became Vulnerable Observers

By Ruth Behar

Meeting of the minds
Image credit: Gerd Altmann

When I called myself a vulnerable observer twenty-five years ago, most other scholars looked at me askance. The word “vulnerable” wasn’t on everyone’s lips then, so it always took a moment for colleagues to realize that it could be used in a positive way as something to be embraced rather than avoided at all costs. But since the 1990s, the word “vulnerable” has gone through a boom in the English language. We hear the word daily, referring to people, the environment, the planet. In cultural anthropology alone, the field I’m in, its usage has increased enormously, as a new generation of anthropologists seeks to be open about themselves while asking others in communities around the world to share the truth of their lives.

I began thinking about the shared vulnerability of the observer and the observed at a fraught moment in my life. It was the summer of 1987, and my beloved maternal grandfather, Zayde, as we called him, was dying of cancer in Miami Beach. We didn’t know how many months he had left, but the family hoped against hope he’d hang on for a while. With strange poetic justice, I had received a grant to do research that summer about death customs in a Spanish village, and then I’d present my findings at a conference in the fall. But I wanted to stay with Zayde. How could I go to Spain while he was dying? My mother and my aunt adamantly urged me not to sit by his bedside waiting for him to die. It would make him die faster. And so I went, and listened to the stories of elderly Spanish Catholic farmers who told me how things were changing, and their loved ones were dying in hospitals and being buried in crypts that looked like the cold modern pisos, the urban apartments, everyone was moving to, leaving behind their ancient adobe houses. They cried and I cried, their stories moved me, broke my heart, for all through those days and weeks I knew Zayde was dying, and I wasn’t there. Sure enough, he died before I could get back, and I missed his funeral, and realized how little I knew about how to say goodbye in the Jewish tradition while I’d learned perfectly how to recite a rosary in Spanish.

I wrote about this experience in the paper I presented at the anthropology conference, and I was so scared to speak so personally in this academic space that I broke out in lip blisters and got a migraine. I knew I’d misbehaved, but after that, I could no longer pursue my research and writing in any other way but vulnerably. Being an immigrant, a Latina, a first-generation college student, and the only one in my family to earn a PhD, it had been a strain for me to learn how to look at the world with the distance and detachment that was required in the academic world. I could never forget that in graduate school, one of my professors had called me “unteachable,” because I kept failing to write papers with the proper “objectivity”—which meant erasing yourself and your emotions from your writing. I realized that if I was to continue in the academic world, I had to find a way for it not to destroy my spirit but to nourish it.

I soon learned there were many of us who, with much struggle and acute imposter syndrome, had entered through the gates of the ivory tower only to discover we weren’t willing to pay the price of belonging if it meant doing our research and writing in ways that deadened our souls. We had to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to open the door to creativity, and to discover innovative ways of expressing ideas and sharing stories about the profound and unfathomable encounters that can take place as we share our mortality with others in seeking to learn about the myriad complexities of the human condition. Much contemporary research in the social sciences and humanities now embraces the idea of vulnerability. There is, at last, a general awareness of the need for researchers to speak personally and include themselves in the narratives they co-create with their research subjects, to bring deeper meaning to the relationship between the observer and the observed.

While making the case for vulnerability in the academy, I could never have imagined how intensely relevant vulnerability would become as a general concept in our era, how heartbreak would be an all-too-familiar condition. The entire world has endured more than two years of an unending pandemic. The rise of new Covid variants still makes it difficult to fully embrace life. And the death of millions of people around the world has taken a toll on us all, whether or not we wish to recognize it. These plague years have been accompanied by a sense of apocalyptic dread about global warming. Catastrophic climate disasters have led to droughts, floods, fires, poverty, hunger, homes fallen to ruin, homes gone in the blink of an eye.

The proliferation of nuclear weapons and militarization around the world puts us all at risk. School shootings in the United States and violent hate crimes around the world fill us with anguish. The unjust profiling and incarceration of people of color and the deportation of refugees and undocumented immigrants have increased racial inequality and normalized the brutality of white hegemony. Growing anti-gay and anti-trans discrimination, and the precarious position of women, as domestic violence increases and our rights over our bodies diminish, reflect a worrisome trend toward the kind of dystopian future imagined in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The rise of authoritarian governments, political fractures around the world, the banning of books, and threats against freedom of expression further intensify the feelings of insecurity that have become all too common in twenty-first century society.

Not only is our world vulnerable, but we’ve all become vulnerable observers as we move about our lives concerned about the next catastrophe. The pandemic has shown how entangled we all are with one another. It is no longer possible to pretend to be a distant, detached observer, whether of other societies or our own. Never has it been so urgent that we envision the world that could be, a world that values life, justice, and wellbeing for all.

I’ve recently become a grandmother. I am constantly wondering what the future holds for my granddaughter and others of the generation just emerging now, born during the pandemic, a moment of reckoning with mortality, a moment when vulnerability became the norm. It is my hope that, even in these times of strife and intense political divisions, we will find a way to join together in our interconnectedness and heal our global society and our one and only planet. As vulnerable observers, let’s build that trust so we can fill in the gaps in our histories and strive to imagine a future where all can coexist peacefully, telling stories that teach us how to approach the world with wonder and without fear.


About the Author 

Ruth Behar is the author of The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart, recently reissued in a twenty-fifth-anniversary edition, and the James W. Fernandez Distinguished University Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan.