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Scheper Hughes' "Womanly Anthropology", and the Ethics of Research

Updated on August 1, 2014

Nancy Scheper Hughes

Nancy Scheper-Hughes is a professor of anthropology and director of the program in Medical Anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley. She is known for her writing on the anthropology of the body, hunger, illness, medicine, psychiatry, madness, social suffering, violence and genocide. In 2009 her investigation of an international ring of organ sellers based in New York, New Jersey and Israel led to a number of arrests by the FBI.

Books by Scheper-Hughes:

  • 2003a Commodifying Bodies. Co-edited with Loïc Wacquant. London: Sage Publications. Series in Theory, Culture, and Society.
  • 2001b Saints, Scholars and Schizophrenics. Berkeley: University of California Press. 20th Anniversary edition. Expanded and updated with new preface and epilogue
  • 1999 Small Wars: The Cultural Politics of Childhood. Co-edited with Carolyn Sargent. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • 1993b Death without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil. Berkeley: University of California Press. (Second edition, paperback).
  • 1979 Saints, Scholars and Schizophrenics: Mental Illness in Rural Ireland. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Womanly Anthropology

When Scheper Hughes talks about womanly anthropology in her article urging a militant anthropology (Scheper-Hughes 1995), it seems like she is asking for an anthropology that cares about the people being studied and invests the research with goals and methodologies that benefit the subjects, align with their beliefs, or facilitate self-expression or self-determination. “A more womanly-hearted anthropology might be concerned not only with how humans think but with how they behave toward each other, thus engaging directly with questions of ethics and power.” (Scheper-Hughes 1995:409). It is easy to see why Scheper-Hughes has the ethical stance that she does: the list of her research sites and subjects is a litany of tragic suffering and hardship in a number of places around the world, and trying to wear the discipline-endorsed neutrality of an observer in the face of such intense misery must have challenged her sense of ethics. Would it really be ethical to allow three youths to be “necklaced” (rubber tires around the neck and burned) for stealing if it was in one’s power to offer an alternative? What is the right thing to do in such a situation? Does the anthropologist’s traditional mantle of objectivity supersede the ethical stance of the individual underneath, canceling any responsibility to act? Such an extreme ethical situation , and indeed a career-long stream of them for Scheper-Hughes, to my mind validates the need for a “womanly anthropology” that investigates and interprets but also helps or intervenes, if asked to do so.

In describing how her concept of womanly anthropology arose, Scheper-Hughes writes about those instances in which neutrality, objectivity, or distance simply felt wrong, and she was morally compelled to act in some way: “In each case I have had to pause and reconsider the traditional role of the anthropologist as neutral, dispassionate, cool and rational, objective observer of the human condition: the anthropologist as “fearless spectator”, to invoke Charles McCabe’s (un)felicitous phrase. And I am tempted to call anthropology’s bluff, to expose its artificial moral relativism and to try to imagine what forms a politically committed and morally engaged anthropology might take.” (410). It seems that Scheper-Hughes is more than tempted to explore the possibilities of such a womanly anthropology as she describes above, since her article is a carefully-crafted justification for her views.

For example, she described how the traditional model of reserved fieldwork, which she tried to remain true to, would not apply to her research situation in a Brazilian shantytown: “I shared my reservations about the propriety of a North American’s taking an active role in a poor Brazilian community. This was “Colonialist”, I patiently explained…” (410). The residents responded that they did not care for anthropology, and that if she returned she would have to help them with their struggle against injustice in return for access to their lives. This poses one of the ethical dilemmas anthropologists face. What is in it for the subjects? By what right do anthropologists document their lives for the furtherance of their careers and the West’s pool of knowledge, without giving anything in return? Scheper-Hughes seems to want anthropologists to recognize this reality, the unethical imbalance of the traditionalist system in which the researcher reaps the rewards and the subjects are simply ‘represented’, and to use their discipline to improve the lives of the people they study while also awakening a desensitized West to the realities of the world from which they are insulated:

“The new cadre of “barefoot anthropologists” I envision must become alarmists and shock-troopers—the producers of politically complicated and morally demanding texts and images capable of sinking through the layers of acceptance, complicity, and bad faith…” (417).

One can see here that Scheper-Hughes, whether calling it “womanly”, “barefoot”, or “militant”, brands her new anthropology as an applied anthropology in which the application can become participation and political action in service of situations that are “really real” (417). In this new anthropology, cognizant of the “explicit ethical orientation” required of it, there remains in Scheper-Hughes eyes the task of incorporating but not privileging Western mores with other ethical systems in pursuit of an ethical standard for anthropologists to adhere to. Scheper-Hughes calls it “womanly” anthropology based on a 1982 text by Gilligan in which the author associated care and responsibility with the term (419). Scheper-Hughes finds that the difference between traditional anthropological remove and “womanly” anthropology is akin to the difference of “spectator” and “witness” (419). Whereas the former jotted notes with a tumbler of whisky under a tree, the latter is a “…responsive, reflexive, and morally committed…” individual unconstrained by moral relativism’s hesitancy (419). Scheper-Hughes goes on to describe the “witness” as a kind of “negative worker” in the sense Basaglia (1987) used it: a “class traitor” that despite working for an institution takes sides with the subjects the institution is meant to govern (420). I find this to be an excellent metaphor for what she is describing: if anthropology is the distanced observer serving the Western paradigm of knowledge, then the “womanly anthropologist” is the one working to undermine such power relations and serve the subjects under study.

I would apply the concept of “Womanly” anthropology when working with marginalized communities whose desires, lifeways, and goals might be at odds with the dominant cultures, social structures, and corporations around them. It could be useful in aiding them with transitions brought about by globalization, for example.

Nancy Scheper-Hughes

The anthropologist with one of her Brazilian informants, in 1987.
The anthropologist with one of her Brazilian informants, in 1987.

Support for "Womanly Anthropology"

In his review of the Scheper-Hughes article and the article by D’Andrade, calling for “womanly” anthropology and “objective” anthropology, respectively, Crapanzano says that despite D’Andrade’s noble goal of separating scientific objectivity from morality, it is inevitable that with an individual anthropologist involved in the endeavor of research, the moral element will come into play regardless of his or her utmost attempts at ‘pure science’. As part of his explanation, Crapanzano points out that all understanding is derived from “…complex indexical dramas that characterize ordinary social interaction, including that between anthropologist and informant…” (Crapanzano 1995:421), thus making the social sciences inherently morally grounded. This last statement of Crapanzano’s is indicative of some of the intricacies of a concept such as ‘informed consent’. The interaction between anthropologist and informant is generally perceived as a one-way street down which information from the informant travels to the anthropologist: however, with the process of informed consent, the nature of the street between the researcher and the subject changes and the subject becomes a receiver of information. The nature of this information differs, but in my mind there should be a meticulous process for informed consent which involves not only the details of the study, how the individual’s words will be used, where they will appear, etc., but which also details the possible impacts of the study on the individual, his or her community, and the broader environment. Some of the problems associated with informed consent include the definition of ‘informed’: at what point might one consider a subject “adequately” informed about the nature of the study of which they are about to take part? After a five minute spiel, or after an hour-long lecture, or after a week of careful instruction? Beyond this basic problem of definition, which is largely relative to the type of study and the cultural and environmental context of its execution, there also comes the problem of “consent”: consent becomes problematic when dealing with individuals who are underage, for example, or individuals with mental problems, drug addictions, or other traits that might inhibit their ability to soberly give consent with full awareness of the implications. Questions such as “What would the reasonable patient want to know?” (McDonald 40) imply that a certain normative ‘reasonableness’ can be expected out of a study-subject: or in other words, that after a certain point, further information becomes irrelevant to the subject. Fluehr-Lobban finds that combining informed consent with anthropology has proven difficult for many reasons, noting that methodologies used in the social sciences – notably the fostering of long-term relationships – problematize the use of consent forms (41). Fluehr-Lobban notes the anthropological work of Humphrey’s regarding homosexual encounters in bathrooms, reminding that the researcher’s methodologies were underhanded, secretive, not-straightforward: in essence, unethical, considering the individuals being studied were lied to regarding Humphrey’s role (42). This research enlivened the debate concerning informed consent in anthropology. This section of the text illuminates one of the problems of informed consent: in some environments, the pursuit of anthropological investigations would be impossible without deception, if the anthropologist is not a participant yet the subjects will trust no one but a participant. This deception is unethical and Humphrey was chastised in multiple ways, yet it brings a question regarding the nature of anthropology: are there corners and pieces of human life from which anthropological study should be restricted, or is all of human existence open game? Informed consent seems like a good guideline for research involving individuals’ names or identifying details, to be certain, but how reasonable an expectation is it if the ‘thick description’ underway takes into account hundreds of individual lives? The sheer logistical consequences of gaining informed consent from a village, suburb, refugee camp, or neighborhood are daunting, to be sure.

Anthropologist-Community Relationships

The anthropologist-community relationship is fraught with ethical considerations, and the fascinating thing to me is that the normative ethics of traditional anthropology – the remove, distance, and objectivity – have come under fire as representative of a ‘do-nothing’ posture of the discipline in the world. Traditional ethics have become unethical, as anthropologists are increasingly seen as vitally-positioned specialists, often individuals with strong ethical beliefs of their own, who can prevent suffering and increase well-being.

The concept of ethics seems to be clear in Scheper-Hughes mind: the idea that an individual must take an ethical stand in the face of injustice and suffering, and that it is perhaps unethical not to do so. “What makes…anthropologists exempt from the human responsibility to take an ethical…stand on the working out of historical events as we are privileged to witness them?” (411). But not everyone feels that way, as illustrated by one of Scheper-Hughes critics, Paul Reisman, remarking on her work in Northern Brazil,

“It seems to me that when we act in critical situations of the sort that Scheper-Hughes describes for Northeast Brazil, we leave anthropology behind. We leave it behind because we abandon what I believe to be a fundamental axiom of the creed we share, namely that all humans are equal in the sight of anthropology. Though Scheper-Hughes does not put it this way, the struggle she is urging anthropologists to join is the struggle against evil. Once we identify an evil, I think we give up trying to understand the situation as a human reality.” (416).

One can see that in this lengthy critique of Scheper-Hughes’ research on the ‘bad faith’ causing deaths in Northern Brazil Reisman seems to inject “evil” into Scheper-Hughes original designations for identifying the situation. Reisman seems resistant because of his traditionalist stance on not taking a side, being a neutral observer of the subjects, not becoming emotionally involved. He correlates identifying a state of affairs with detrimental effects on a population (as Scheper-Hughes described) to ‘evil’, but this seems more of a projection of his own conceptualizations, since the state of affairs by itself is not inherently good or evil (since this would imply intentionality, to my mind), but rather a complex meshwork influenced by historical accident, environmental conditions, political and economic agendas, lack of education, incentive, and funding among social services and the laborers themselves, and many other factors. I find it interesting that Reisman injected the idea of ‘evil’ into Scheper-Hughes argument, then proceeded to use that injected word to interpret her course of action. It may be true that once an ‘evil’ is identified it is difficult to understand as a human reality, but unfortunately for Reisman, Scheper-Hughes did not identify an evil. Nevertheless, Reisman represents the other side of the “ethical coin” in anthropology: on one side, there are those who consider it ethical to observe without interfering and unethical to interfere; on the other side, there are those who consider it ethical to interfere and unethical to observe without acting. While this conundrum is strongly related to each individual anthropologist’s teachers’ perspectives and their own relationship to concepts such as post-colonialism and paternalism, the fear of action produced by a fear of seeming paternalistic seems like an extravagant affectation in our world today.

In Laura Nader’s discussion of the D’Andrade and Scheper-Hughes articles and the contrast between “moral models and positivism”, the author finds that ultimately both authors are writing about the “scientific adequacy” of anthropology (Nader 1995:426). She claims that what is necessary is both a scientific and a morally grounded anthropology, and she foresees anthropology as increasingly incorporating ethical considerations as part of practice, “Who could argue with Scheper-Hughes that anthropology should be ethically based?” (426). This question of scientific adequacy is at the heart of the ethical considerations that arise between an anthropologist and a community of subjects, because the adequacy of the anthropological research in terms of its strong scientific foundations is directly related to the extent to which the research will have an impact, on other academics, on policy makers, on the public, and ultimately, on the community being studied.

The ethical considerations between the anthropologist and the subjects are many: who controls the nature of the study, where it goes, what it tells, how it’s done, who is included/omitted, who gets to see it, and how it is used. The ethical considerations of an anthropologist from outside of a community representing the community to the outside world are legion, in and of themselves. Misrepresentations can produce social stigma, as in the case with the homeless; it can also disenfranchise a group from their identity, creating a thought-construct to which much of the world goes for understanding of the group, as with some Tibetans.

Womanly Anthropology

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Organ Trafficking

Scheper-Hughes used her concept of "Womanly" (or "militant") anthropology to help bring down a ring of human organ traffickers. Shown here are some of the victims of the ring,
Scheper-Hughes used her concept of "Womanly" (or "militant") anthropology to help bring down a ring of human organ traffickers. Shown here are some of the victims of the ring,


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