What is the Place of Emotion in Humanistic Empiricism?

Recently, someone close to me drew the connection between the demand for the removal of emotion from scholarship and the continued presence of underlying masculine bias in academia. I was taken aback by the implications of this connection and my blindness to it.  In reading Ruth Behar’s The Vulnerable Observer and “Believing in Anthropology as Literature,” the relevance of this masculine bias and its demand for anthropology to be devoid of emotion becomes all the more apparent as do the distinct limitations it creates.  Behar warns, “Most efforts to bring emotions and feelings, including love and gratitude, into our work are likely to be dismissed as ‘feminine sentimentality’” (Behar 2011: 110).  Personal narratives, and even life histories of our informants, can be seen as risky within anthropological forms of writing. These forms of writing often have clear emotional components which are paradoxically seen as compelling and unreliably subjective.  In a discipline struggling for a humanistic empiricism, objective detachment is clung to as a means of laying claim to a scientific ideal. Yet experts from any of the hard sciences openly display emotions over their research. Scientists get excited when they make monumental discoveries; their work can also disappoint them, worry them, and even disturb them. The influence of a scientist’s passions for their work over the particular research questions posed receives little critique within the “hard” sciences.  While a geologist’s zealous passion for his or her research rarely impacts the chemical test results run on soil samples, an anthropologist’s empathetic sorrow can influence analysis of interviews. As anthropologists do we claim our fears, our sorrows, our joys as evidence of observable responses to human realities of the worlds in which we work or do we ignore those unquantifiable internal experiences so that we can focus on our observations of the people and phenomena we study?

Maynes, Pierce, and Laslett argued that the motivation behind including life histories and personal narratives in research involving both the social sciences and humanities is connected to the particularly apparent humanness of this data and its ability to generate a direct dialogue between people and the theories written about them (Maynes et al 2008). They write, “One primary motivation is the desire to examine varieties of individual selfhood and agency ‘from below’ band and practice, as constructed in people’s articulation of self understandings” (Maynes et al 2008: 1).The impact of macro-level forces on an individual lives at the micro-level are brought to life, through life histories which can be employed to try the very human realities of macro policies and forces.  Well utilized life histories can be a powerful tool for anthropological literature which allow the author to provoke emotion without being seen as overly emotional him or herself. Life history becomes a “testimonio” in feminist and activist work, which utilizes such stories to empower a person’s story to become a symbol of the movement (Behar 1996: 27). Life histories and personal narratives have the potential to invigorate ethnographic writing with the type of evocative testimony which directs emotional response and supports social change.

The reality of Behar’s struggle over how much of her to include in “Death and Memory” epitomizes the academic compulsion to remove all hints of emotions.  She warns, “to write vulnerable is to open Pandora’s box” (Behar 1996: 19). Often, the human reality of emotional truth is the story we, as anthropologists are unwilling to tell.  As Behar’s Aunt Rebeca reminds us, anthropology is “the study of people” (Behar 1996: 4). If that is true, then how do we tell the story of people devoid of a basic component of what it means to be human? If the anthropologist is the instrument through which human realities are observed and cultural data is collected, then emotional responses which they shape the anthropologist cannot be ignored.

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