Nancy Scheper-Hughes: Catholic Schoolgirl Turned Militant Anthropologist

Those of us who make a living observing and recording the misery of the world have a particular obligation to reflect critically on the impact of the harsh images of human suffering that we foist on the public. ~Nancy Scheper-Hughes

Nancy Scheper-Hughes

This is a biography piece I wrote for my History of Anthropology course. Nancy Scheper-Hughes is a cultural anthropologist, and a professor of medical anthropology at the University of California Berkeley (Scheper-Hughes and Sargent 295). Her life and experiences have had a profound impact on her ideas of what is expected from anthropology. Her exposure, as a civil rights activist and anthropologist to controversial issues such as violence against children and infanticide, as well as trafficking of human organs and genocide had a great influence to her concept of what an anthropologists’ responsibilities should be toward their subjects.

Nancy Scheper-Hughes relayed her life story to Harry Kreisler in a 1999 interview for the University of Berkeley Conversations with History. Her story begins in the year 1944, when Nancy was born into an immigrant section of Brooklyn, New York where she was surrounded by many Eastern European cultures. Her parents raised her to be a devout Catholic, thus she only attended public school for two years before switching to St. Peter and Paul’s Church School. She attended a Catholic high school as well. In 1959, Nancy took part in a school trip to Russia, which not only opened her mind to a different culture, but introduced her to atheism. She then began her undergraduate program in anthropology at Queens College in the 1960’s, where she met her mentor and friend Hortense Powdermaker. During her first two years as an undergraduate, she became increasingly involved in student peace and civil rights movements. In 1962, Scheper-Hughes put her undergraduate studies on hold, and joined Peace Corps on assignment to Brazil. (Kreisler 1).

Nancy recounts in the prologue of her 1992 book Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil, that she felt her life had come full circle when she entered into Brazil. She had lived a good deal of her childhood down the street from a sugar refinery, and coming to Brazil allowed her to witness the other side, the sugar cane cutters. There is a high rate of child mortality in Brazil, about one million children under age five per year. During 1976 alone, in her assignment area of Alto do Cruziero there were 350 infant deaths (Spradley and McCurdy 178). Scheper-Hughes worked in a public hospital in Belem do Nordeste, with no running water, treating these mortally ill, dehydrated infants (Death without Weeping 5). Later, Nancy helped in the construction of a child care center, for the cane cutting mothers who could not take their children to work with them (Death without Weeping 8). This experience brought her attention to the considerably high occurrences of infant deaths in the area, but political tension forced her to leave brazil directly after her assigned time was completed (Kreisler 3).

After completing her Peace Corps service, Scheper-Hughes returned to the states and joined the civil rights movement to help bring government programs against hunger in the south. Her group worked on a lawsuit against the Department of Agriculture for “allowing Americans to go Hungry,” although Sheper-Hughes’ role was mainly in identifying the signs of malnutrition. Although losing the case, they had influence on the food stamp program being brought to much of the south (Kreisler 2). I really respect that as an anthropologist, Scheper-Hughes has not only recognized these issues abroad, but in America as well.

These experiences helped shape Sheper-Hughes ideas about humanity, yet at this point, Scheper-Hughes had not yet finished her undergraduate degree. She was invited to become a research assistant at the University of California Berkeley campus, working under her prior mentor from Queens College, Hortense Powdermaker. This was where she finished her undergraduate and Graduate degrees in anthropology. Nancy chose to go to Ireland at this time, because she was still unable to return to Brazil, due to her prior involvement in political issues (Kreisler 3).What followed were a book, and a humbling learning experience regarding an anthropologists subjects of study.

Scheper-Hughes’ first book, Saints, Scholars and Schizophrenics: Mental Illness in Rural Ireland, was written in 1979, after moving her husband and three children to Ireland, for a yearlong participant observation study in a village she called “Ballybran” (Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics 6,11). Nancy had originally planned to study sexuality and gender in Ireland. Her mind was changed however, after meeting with psychiatrist David Dunne. He showed her a hospital census, showing that Ireland had high admission rates for schizophrenia. “You Americans are so obsessed with sex,” Dunne coaxed, “Why not take a crack at this puzzle instead?” (Saints, Scholars, and schizophrenics 22-24).

Nancy found in her research, the most vulnerable to mental illness and schizophrenia were the young and middle-aged bachelor farmers. These men were typically the youngest in their families, and unmarried due to the high rates of female emigration to the west. She notes in her book, the combination of influences that lead to mental illness, including:
the current disintegration of village social life and institutions; the remarkable separation and alienation of the sexes; a guilt-and-shame orientated socialization process that guarantees the loyalty of at least one male child to parents, home, and village through the systematic scapegoating of this (usually the youngest) son (Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics 60).

As stated earlier, a main part of this cultural disintegration was due in part to the ever lowering ratio of women, and that those who did choose to stay chose modernity, and did not rush into finding a husband. This brought about difficulty in finding a bride, and lead to guilt, shame, and alcoholism (Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics 61).

This book was very controversial to many of those she had lived among in Ireland. Upon her return to “Ballybran” some twenty years after writing, she experienced great hostility against what she had written about them. In a preface to the 2001 edition to the text, Scheper-Hughes recollects questioning the ethics of anthropology, and “balancing one’s responsibility to honest ethnography with care and respect for the people who shared a part of their lives and secrets with me” (Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics Preface 2000). In the Kreisler interview, she expresses the lesson she received from her first ethnographic writing experience,

what I’ve learned after all of my years of writing about communities in which we form deep friendships and relationships is that the process of writing itself is, of course, a form of objectification, and people are never completely satisfied with what you have to say about them. So it’s a relationship built in terms of a kind of a clash of interpretations, a collision of cultures, and I do think that that’s both the value and the danger of anthropology… (Kreisler 3).

Along with feeling like their secrets had been shared, the people of Ballybran were annoyed at Scheper-Hughes’ failed attempt to keep them anonymous. “You think we didn’t, each of us, sit down pouring over every page until we had recognized the bits and pieces of ourselves strewn about here and there” (Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics Preface 1982). These were a literate people, who had no trouble deciphering who was who amongst the monikers and nicknames. There were those who were grateful for the anthropologist’s work, and recognized her purpose for exposing the less amiable qualities of themselves. As one teacher in the village stated, “We are less naïve now, we can see more clearly what our problems are, and how deep the roots of them go” (Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics Preface 1982). Despite the controversy in Ireland, this book was awarded the Margaret Mead award from the Society for Applied Anthropology.
In 1982, Scheper-Hughes made the journey back to Brazil, to Alto do Cruzeiro the largest shantytown surrounding Bom Jesus da Mata. At first her main objective was to determine the main causes surrounding the high number of “baby die offs,” which she found to be “poverty, deprivation, sexism, chronic hunger and economic exploitation” (Spradley and McCurdy 182). What really caught her interest however, was not only the numbers of deaths, but the explicit indifference from the mothers and communities involved (Spradley and McCurdy 176). What was occurring in Alto do Cruzeiro was what Scheper-Hughes called “mortal selective neglect,” where the “high expectancy of death, and the ability to face child death with stoicism and equanimity, produced patterns of nurturing that differentiated between those infants thought of as thrivers and survivors, and those thought of as born already ‘wanting to die’”(Spradley and McCurdy 179). The women, many of whom worked on sugar plantations and could not take their children with them, would leave their babies at home, with the door securely closed, “and so many also die alone and unattended” (Spradley and McCurdy 178).

Nancy Scheper-Hughes continued the study of violence and maltreatment of children in the United States and Abroad. She has coedited two books on the subject: Child Survival: Anthropological Perspectives on the Treatment and Maltreatment of Children in 1987, which includes essays from anthropologists on infanticide, social trauma, child abuse, and social intervention. In 1998, she coedited Small Wars: The Cultural Politics of Childhood with Carolyn Sargent, ant this volume focuses on child development issues, politics of child survival, and again children and violence.

Scheper-Hughes’ life and experiences have influenced her to push her concept of a “militant anthropology,” the idea of an “active, politically committed, morally engaging anthropology” (Moore and Sanders 506). Through this idea, she urges anthropologists to show a real representation of human struggles, “capable of sinking through the layers of acceptance, complicity, and bad faith that allow the suffering and deaths to continue without even the pained cry of recognition” (Moore and Sanders 507-508). In other words, it is an anthropologist’s responsibility to shock their audience into becoming active about the issues they are reading about, no to merely shrug it off as “the way things are.”

The responsibility of an anthropologist is to overcome the “basic strangeness” and feelings of difference to other cultures, and to find what is parallel in all human beings. In 1995, in the Primacy of the Ethical, she wrote that “What draws me back to these people and places is not their exoticism and their “otherness” but the pursuit of those small spaces of convergence, recognition, and empathy that we all share”(Moore and Sanders 509). She also discourages fellow anthropologists from trying to mask the issues that may not be the most attractive of some cultures (for example schizophrenia in Ireland, or infanticide in Brazil), and against the “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” report. “Anthropologists,” she says, “are accountable for what they see and what they fail to see, how they act and how they fail to act in critical situations,”(Moore and Sanders 511) that “Not to look, not to touch, not to record can be the hostile act, and act of indifference and of turning away” (Moore and Sanders 509).

In the 1990’s, the University of California, Berkeley became involved in a lawsuit regarding the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation act. A Maidu activist, Art Angle requested that the ashes and brain of Ishi, the famed “Last of the Yahi” be returned to his cultural descendants. Her 2001 article Ishi’s Brain, Ishi’s Ashes: Anthropology and Genocide gives an account on anthropology’s role in Native American Genocide, and Ishi’s relationship with Alfred Kroeber, the anthropologist who found him wandering alone and “rescued” him.

Sheper-Hughes points out in this article that although today’s anthropology “was built up in the face of colonial and post-colonial genocides, ethnocides, population die-outs, and other forms of mass destruction visited on the ‘non-Western’ peoples whose lives, suffering and deaths provide the raw material for much of our work,” many fail to witness it, again the “see no evil approach (Ishi’s Brain. Ishi’s Ashes 12). She agreed with a statement made by Claude Levi-Strauss, that “Anthropology is the daughter of this era of violence.” This statement, she says “is an indictment of those anthropologists who served as bystanders, silent and useless witnesses to the genocides and die-outs they encountered in the course of pursuing their science” (Ishi’s Brain, Ishi’s Ashes 13). She continues to maintain her militant anthropologist perspective on this issue into modern times, although the modern manifestations of genocide come in the form of structural violence, such as “poverty, racism, social exclusion and geopolitical displacement, chronic unemployment, ill health, and family disorganization resulting from alcohol and drug addictions” (Ishi’s Brain, Ishi’s Ashes 14).
Kroeber was the last of his kind as well as Ishi, according to Nancy. She says he is one of the last anthropologists of his time who strayed away from reporting the violence and genocide he had witnessed, and that had it not been for his wife, Theodora Kroeber, Ishi’s story would never have been written (Kenny 26). She deems Kroeber’s salvage ethnography approach, and his relationship with Ishi a “weak response to genocide,” for although he gained extensive information from Ishi about his people, he was so shook up about his death that he refused to speak or write of him (Ishi’s Brain, Ishi’s Ashes 14). Ishi’s death really took a toll on Kroeber. Ishi did not oppose to being an informant and living specimen on his culture, or working as an assistant janitor, for he saw Kroeber as a friend, and he was suffering from post-traumatic stress, and had begun to accept that he could not return to his previous life. Ishi’s death occurred from tuberculosis, while Kroeber was on sabbatical. Although while he was away, Kroeber sent telegrams urging to treat Ishi’s body with respect and not utilize it for science, his wishes were ignored, and Ishi’s brain was removed prior to cremation. For some reason upon his return, Kroeber sent the brain to the Smithsonian for research (Scheper-Hughes suggests he did this as a form of disordered mourning)(Ishi’s Brain, Ishi’s Ashes 16).

In spring 1991, after Ishi’s brain had been located, Nancy Scheper-Hughes was asked to chair the committee to draft and deliver a formal statement from the University of California Berkeley on the situation. The statement consisted of a formal apology from the department of anthropology, and promised the swift return of Ishi’s brain to the Maidu (who were assumed to be the nearest cultural descendants of the Yahi). She then states that a conference or apology is not really enough to settle the mistrust from Native Americans toward anthropologists, which at some point anthropologists must be more than a bystander and co-conspirator toward genocide (Ishi’s Brain, Ishi’s Ashes 18).

Scheper-Hughes’ recent work revolves around human organ trafficking and transplantation. In 1996 she partook in a two year study, traveling throughout Brazil, India, and South Africa for in depth research which consisted of observations and interviews in clinics, dialysis centers, police stations, morgues, anywhere that may have had involvement in organ harvesting and transplant surgery(The Global Traffic in Human Organs 192). She is also the founder of Organs Watch, an organization dedicated to the research of global human trafficking, as well as an advisor to the World Health Organization on these issues (“Nancy Scheper Hughes” Berkeley faculty page). Nancy Scheper-Hughes’ idea of militant anthropology came from extensive experience in relating to the human condition. Through her work with mental illness in Ireland, infanticide in Brazil, and civil rights in America it can be seen that she does not view other cultures as “others” at all. She views them “not just as friends or as patrons… but as comrades (with all the demands and responsibilities that this word implies)” (Moore and Sanders 512).


Kenny, Alexandra. “Ishi’s Brain, Ishi’s AshesThe Complex Issues of Repatriation: A Response to N. Scheper- Hughes.” Anthropology Today. 18.2 (2002): 25-27. Web. 28 Nov. 2011. .

Kreisler, Harry. “Conversation with Nancy Scheper-Hughes.” Conversations With History. UC Berkeley, 18 jun 2008. Web. 23 Nov 2011.

Moore, Henrietta, and Todd Sanders, ed. Anthropology in Theory:Issues in Epistemology. Malden,Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006.

“Nancy Scheper-Hughes.” Anthropology Department, UC Berkeley. N.p., 27 nov 2011. Web. 27 Nov 2011. .

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. Death Without Weeping. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. Print.
Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. “The Global Traffic in Human Organs.” Current Anthropology. 41.2 (2000): 191-224. Web. 27 Nov. 2011.

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. “Ishi’s Brains, Ishi’s Ashes: Anthropology and Genocide.” Anthropology Today. 7.1 (2001): 12-18. Web. 23 Nov. 2011. .

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics: Mental Illness in Rural Ireland. 20th anniversary Edition, Rev. and expanded. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. Print.

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy, and Carolyn Fishel Sargent. Ed. Small Wars: the Cultural Politics of Childhood. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Print.
Spradley, James, and David McCurdy. Conformity and Conflict:Readings in Cultural Anthropology. 13th. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, Inc, 2009. 

Spradley, James P., and David W. McCurdy. Conformity and Conflict: Readings in Cultural Anthropology. Boston: Little, Brown, 1971.