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Nancy Scheper-Hughes Death Without Weeping Essay

Death Without Weeping Essay

Death Without Weeping Ethnography Review

Ethnography Review: Death Without Weeping: the violence of everyday life in Brazil, by Nancy Scheper-Hughes

As an ethnography, Death Without Weeping describes the way of life of people in a Northeast Brazilian shantytown. As the author herself says, it is an attempt at a "good enough" ethnography: one that seeks to give voice to these people without futilely trying to sweep the anthropologist's personal perspective under the rug (28). Scheper-Hughes considers the relationship between this town, Alto, and colonialism, power, capitalism, religion, and the overall history of hardship and horror. Scheper-Hughes approached her fieldwork with an interesting participatory tactic, which has allowed her to make unique conclusions but which also raises the question of audience.

The author began her relationship with the people of Alto when she was stationed there with the Peace Corps in 1964. In this role she was a community organizer and was very much an actor in the daily lives of the people there. When she came back as an Anthropologist almost twenty years later, it seems she had to confront the disparate characters of community participant and community ethnographer. It is in her fusing of these two roles that she was able to construct Death Without Weeping as a realistic representation of a place and a people.

The first step in this is acknowledgment of the Western Enlightenment tenets which have created a potentially flawed view of what knowledge should be. Scheper-Hughes rejects that knowledge can or should be acquired objectively, and adopts what she calls a phenomenological approach. The world is personal, and that what works in one place does not have to work universally in order to be legitimate practice. There is no "universal and absolute truth" or scientific neutrality; the best solution is to try and look at individual and community aspects of perception of phenomena (24). As an innately non-neutral observer, Scheper-Hughes participated in the political and social movements of Alto (setting up the childcare center and UPAC change group). She essentially combined her actual ethnographic work with a public stance on the living conditions of the people of Alto, resulting in an especially well informed radical action.

With her focus mainly on women and children of the Nordeste, Scheper-Hughes interviewed hundreds of women about their reproductive history, and talked to hospitals, morgues, the Church, politicians, and any person who was a part of a woman's life there. The most in depth of her lines of inquiry was in the lives of a handful of women who were her friends. She had even delivered some of their children while she was in the Peace Corps there, and as an Anthropologist...

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Death Without Weeping Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Death Without Weeping by Nancy Scheper-Hughes.

Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil (1992) by American anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes follows hundreds of poor and disabled individuals, mostly women, in a severely impoverished area of northeastern Brazil over the course of 25 years. Scheper-Hughes won the prestigious Margaret Mead Award in 1979 for her study of single male farmers in Ireland titled Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics. In 2009, her investigations into an illegal organ donor gang led to several criminal arrests in the US. Scheper-Hughes teaches anthropology at UC Berkley.

Death Without Weeping was praised for its thorough ethnography and graceful prose; it was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1993. Its themes include mortality, social stigma, and perseverance, as well as the importance of a feminist approach to anthropology, the crushing effects poverty has on human qualities such as love (or what the author calls “the political economy of emotions”), and the nuances of class systems.

Just outside the city of Bom Jesús da Mata, there is a “shantytown” known as Alto do Cruzeiro (the English translation is “Hill of the Crucifixion”). About 5,000 people live there. Since the late 1960s, Scheper-Hughes intermittently worked throughout Brazil, and during these travels and assignments with the Peace Corps, she developed a strong interest in the community of Alto do Cruzeiro.

She describes this initial interest in the long introduction. The work has 12 chapters total that each focus on the scientific, political, moral, or economic struggle of the community.

Scheper-Hughes is especially interested in how women handle these strenuous situations, and profiles over 100 women from three different generations. The book explores how they work hard and get ahead in a terrifying environment. The author presents on their daily frustrations and long-term dreams.

In vivid detail, Scheper-Hughes describes how the streets are full of mud and smoke. Most of the people are emaciated from lack of nutrient-rich food. Unlike the developed world, nearly 25 percent of infants don’t survive childbirth. A similar number don’t survive beyond the age of 2. Many die from treatable situations, such as diarrhea and dehydration. When Scheper-Hughes first lived with the villagers in the middle 60s, this reaction shocked her; she returned to the area from 1982-1989 to then formally study this phenomenon as an anthropologist.

All of the women Scheper-Hughes interviews have had their share of employment, reproductive, and marital conflicts.  Like most of the villagers, they each work on a plantation. Under a grueling sun, they spend most of their day picking sugar cane. There are class and racial tensions within this work and across the town.

Several forces support the continued poverty of the people living in Alto de Cruzeiro. Firstly, the government tends to be apathetic or simply incompetent. Bribery is also a frequent occurrence. The local doctors also, as dozens of the mothers reported, lack any interest in keeping the women or their children alive.

Without any effective government structure, may people in the region have taken to organizing themselves. They form gangs that fight for resources, killing many innocent people in the process. It is common for residents to be “disappeared” by a gang. Even if residents can find enough food and water, and live beyond the habitual violence, the average life expectancy in the area is only 40 years.

Without access to quality education, many of the residents are superstitious. Others take solace in the Roman Catholic church, which gives them emotional satisfaction but prevents them from reaching their own political potential. Scheper-Hughes calls the community acceptance of very high infant mortality–as well as acceptance of daily gang/government harassment and visible pollution–“routinization.”

Scheper-Hughes posits that due to the overwhelming poverty of the region, new mothers rarely have the energy to give their children the kind of attention and love that is often a hallmark of new mother-infant relationships. In this shantytown, new mothers know that there is a surprisingly high chance that their child won’t live. Consequently, they don’t bond with them. They don’t name their child until it survives beyond the age of two, and infants who appear sickly are simply ignored. Some mothers even seem to wish that weak infants pass sooner so they can return their energy to their own survival.

Scheper-Hughes contends that mother-child bonding is often a “bourgeois” myth told by the countries that can afford the bonding experience. In this community, and similarly impoverished communities throughout the world, mothers are forced to emotionally remove themselves from the child’s death and not mourn the loss of the child. This community-wide reaction to infant death informs the title of this book, Death without Weeping.

The author also observes that the Catholic Church supports this indifferent reaction within new mothers toward their offspring. By preaching that death is the way of the world and there is nothing to keep these repeat tragedies from occurring, the Church keeps these women in a vicious cycle of poverty and hardship; birth control and abortion are considered to be sins, and thus banned.

The church, along with the apathy of the government, reinforces the impression that childhood mortality is not a pressing social concern; thus, the problem never abates.

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