Nancy Schepper-Huges’ graphic portrayal of hunger and violance in Brazil

Death without weeping: The violence of everyday life in Brazil

Rating: 4 out of 5

Author: Nancy Schepper-Huges

Year: 1992

Category: Anthropology, hunger, violence, poverty

Publisher: University of California Press

Death without weeping is an ethnographic study of a town in North-Eastern Brazil. The theme of the book is hunger, child deaths and ‘every day violence’ in Brazil. The work is situated in a town she calls ‘Bom Jesus da mata’ in Pernambuco district of N.E. Brazil. The author visited the place first as a volunteer in 1964, and continued her association with the town ever since. After her training as a cultural Anthropologist, she returned there in 1982 to do extensive-formal ethnographic work on this subject.

The distinction of the book is its coverage of all aspects of hunger and child deaths: economic, structural, cultural, political and sociological. The book begins with extensive chapters on the colonial history of Brazil, slavery, the growth of monoculture, and the consolidation of relatively smaller farms into the massive latifundistas. The chapters are thematically arranged covering symbolic relations of extreme depravation, medicalisation of hunger, child hunger & child care, state violence, etc.

The economic structure of town studied is dominated by sugarcane monoculture, condemning people to low-paying, hard and seasonal work. The impact of poverty was exacerbated by various cultural practices, specially that of child-feeding and child-rearing. This combined with poor public facilities such as water, health and sanitation resulted in high infant mortality in the region. The book is not so much about the relation between poverty, sanitation or health to hunger and child deaths. It is more an inquiry into the nature of social relations that has produced these conditions in the first place. The book is grounded in materialist as well as symbolic frameworks, but draws widely from other theories and fields.

An aspect I like about the book is that it’s written in the first person, and the philosophical underpinning is transparent. Information was drawn by a variety of methods including participant observation, interviews, secondary literature, collection of data, etc. All through the book, the source of information is clearly presented. For example, she discusses the difficulty of getting reliable figures on infant mortality. Her sources included hospital records, coffin makers, office issuing death certificates, interviews with parents, etc. Such a divergent exercise in itself is indicative of absence of reliable data. The reader is thus always aware of the nature of information, and its interpretative significance.

The data, quotes and her thoughts are neatly interlaced in the text with various theoretical premises. At the same time, she avoids locating all her analysis in one theory, calling them reductionism. Through beautiful illustrations Schepper-Huges brings alive Foucault, Gramsci, Josué de Castro, Marx, Sartre and a host of other ‘left leaning’ thinkers. Many incur her wrath as well – Talcot Parsons in particular.

Death Without Weeping has invited its share of controversies since its publication. Her depiction of poor Nordestino mothers taking child death with emotional ease (read by many as coldly) has been condemned by many, and ‘disproved’ by subsequent ethnographers. Though I had heard of that criticism before I started on the book, I did not find her depiction ‘cold’ since it was totally clear through the book that she was empathetic of the people she had worked with.

In terms of methods, representation, writing style, and the underlying philosophy I would give full marks to the author. The book is grounded in experience and offers an insight in the various dimensions of hunger. The footnotes and bibliographies are very detailed, and cover the best of literature in all the areas that she covers in the book. That combined with a lucid style makes it a wonderful reading.

About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.

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