The Vulnerable Observer by Ruth Behar (1996, Beacon Press) is a mixture of memoir and diasporic ethnography, or maybe more precisely one that crosses borders, both geographically and in genre. The collection of six essays covers a remarkable range of topics: memory, trauma, death rites, classism, racism, feminism, and, most importantly, lessons on how to write and become a good observer. An observer that is touched and committed, and who has no fear of being moved by the stories she comes to know and engage in. Half of the essays have already been published elsewhere, however, especially the one giving the book its title is already another classic on anthropological practice and writing. I was also especially touched by the invisible border that divides the life of two women in My Mexican Friend Marta Who Lives across the Border from Me in Detroit, and the longtime traumatizing effect a childhood injury can have on ones life in The Girl in the Cast. The last one, Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart, is a plea for an anthropology that engages and embraces feeling, while at the same time defending another classic in anthropological writing on affect, namely Renato Rosaldo’s Grief and a Headhunter’s Rage.
How did I come across the book?
I’ve known the title for years, and always wanted to read it at some point. Now that I am preparing a seminar for undergraduate students, I could finally get it done. I’m still not sure which of the essays will go into the syllabus, because many offer possibilities on discussing the ways affect works in anthropology.
When and where did I read it?
At work, for work. I read each essay on its own, so it’s been six days in total. One could possibly make it in one session, but since the stories are deeply moving, I preferred to take it slow – you’ve been warned.
The programmatic final of the book can indeed be taken as a poignant summary:
Call it sentimental, call it Victorian and nineteenth century, but I say that anthropology that doesn’t break your heart just isn’t worth doing anymore. (p. 177)