Ruth Behar’s book titled, Translated Woman: Crossing the Border with Esperanza’s Story, is a vividly-written text that explores the life of a Mexican woman named Esperanza. Behar, a teacher and anthropologist, chooses Esperanza as her subject of analysis for a variety of reasons. The main one centers on Esperanza’s status as a common Mexican woman, a member of a group which is generally marginalized and glossed over as an insignificant subject of scrutiny in cultural studies. During the course of her work, Behar asks the question, “Can an ethnographer portray her subject, in this case Esperanza, while employing her own voice and experiences as well?”
Anthropology Reading Journal Series
III. September 19” Ethnography and/as Culture II
This week’s readings are a continuation of week II’s theme on ethnography and culture, though reading #2, Ruth Behar’s except, is more about the writing style that she employs than a critique on how ethnographies have previously been written.
Reading #1: Abu-Lughod, Lila. “Writing Against Culture” In Feminist Anthropology: A Reader. 153-169.
Abu-Lughod’s article explores two critical groups; “feminists and halfies”, groups whose perspectives have been excluded from fully understanding the process of ethnographic writing. She explains that these groups exemplify cultural identities that have multiple origins or perspectives. For feminists, one is both a ‘woman’ and ‘other’, whereas “halfies” are those “whose national identity is mixed by virtue of migration”.
At the heart of the article is her main question, “What happens when you disrupt or disturb the balance of traditional ethnographic practice that so often excluded these critical groups?” Her answer to this question is that when one achieves “writing against culture”, they reflect on the “conventional nature and political effects of distinction and ultimately reconsider that value of concept of culture on which it depends.” (p.466) Writing against culture, thus becomes a method of purposely including and recognizing these dualities or pluristic perspectives in order to reinforce distinctions with the hierarchy that is inherent in anthropology.
Abu Lughod supports her claims by explaining the problem when one is both ‘self’ and ‘other’. She discusses how feminists and anthropologists are different in how they construct knowledge with which to draw boundaries. There is an awkwardness that occurs for the feminists who situate themselves with the other but also feel that they are ‘under attack’ by the other. This is a missing perspective in much of ethnographic writing that cannot be fully captured by the non-feminist/halfie anthropologist.
In conclusion, Abu-Lughod says that because of these split selves, both feminists and halfies are constantly troubled with determining issues related to “speaking for and speaking from”. Though this is troublesome, it allows them to critically assess “positionality, audience, and the power inherent in distinctions in self and other.” (p. 468)