In a world connected through technology, the definitions of home and homesickness have
evolved over time. Information can be gained with a few keystrokes and friends and families can be updated in minutes with a social media post. More than ever, immigrants and travelers rub shoulders in the most unexpected ways.
Ruth Behar, Victor Haim Perera Collegiate Professor of Anthropology, who will speak about these questions in her upcoming lecture, looks to understand what it means to be a traveler today. Her research over the years has addressed the complex topic of what home signifies in our era of massive displacement while delving into her own immigrant story and the role that travel plays in her life.
“We have the capacity to be on the move and constantly to displace ourselves voluntarily. I think it's created a sense of a global soul,” said Behar. “Despite our awareness that we are from distinctive places, we also have the capacity to adapt ourselves to life in many different places.”
Behar’s Inaugural Lecture, “Traveling Heavy: Anthropology and the Search for Home,” will reflect on her travels in Spain, Mexico and Cuba during her career.
As the world becomes more connected, people have been displaced by both necessity and
choice. Options of travel have increased for leisure, business, and education, while natural disasters and wars have created refugee crises. The Internet connects us with those on the
other side of the world in seconds. News stations bring us coverage of tragedies from farther away than our doorstep.
As a young anthropologist working in Spain in the late 70s, Behar learned the limitations of not being connected. “I stayed in touch with the people I got to know in Spain in the late 70s, where I did my first field work in Santa María del Monte, a little village in the north,” said Behar. “Back then, you'd write a letter and it would take a long time. They would write a letter and that would take a long time. In the village, there wasn't a phone. It was much more difficult to stay connected. Today the village has a website and it’s possible to be in touch via Facebook and WhatsApp.”
People, places, and ideas feel much more interwoven in today’s world. Behar said she believes the greater access to the world has shaped how people think about travel and the map of the imagination.
“Fifty years ago, when an anthropologist went to New Guinea or Ghana, it was a fairly unusual thing to do. Now many more people visit New Guinea and Ghana and other locations that were once viewed as exotic and distant,” said Behar.
Behar believes her own inspiration for pursuing anthropology started when she was young. As a young immigrant from Cuba living in New York, her leg was injured and required her to stay in bed for a year. This lack of mobility sparked a passion for movement and a desire to learn about the lives of people in other places.
“That was a pivotal experience in my life. I was in bed for a year when I was 10 years old waiting for my leg to heal,” said Behar. “I believe that experience had a lot to do with my becoming an anthropologist, wanting to be on the move all the time and wanting to travel. It may perhaps have been that year of not being able to go anywhere, being stuck in bed, that filled me with a desire to be nomadic.”
Behar’s wish to be a traveler led her to pursue anthropology full time. She’s also had a longstanding passion for creative writing and has found ways to push ethnographic writing in directions that incorporate poetic visions. After dedicating her life to anthropological and writing pursuits, she is glad to see the support from her colleagues.
“It was moving to learn that my colleagues in the Anthropology Department were supportive of my work. That was an uplifting feeling, to be honored with a Collegiate professorship, to know that my work mattered to my colleagues,” said Behar.
While her colleagues recognized her dedication to anthropology and writing, she hopes her work has inspired her students as well. Many of Behar’s students have gone on to become professors and they teach courses focusing on ethnographic writing, citing ideas from her own syllabi. The impact of her teaching on past students is evident, but she also hopes to inspire current students inside and outside of the classroom.
“I regularly teach a course on Cuba and I bring scholars and artists to campus from Cuba so students here have the opportunity to meet creative thinkers from the island.” said Behar. “Between my teaching and my writing, I try to share with students the possibility of dialogue and peace that is at the heart of anthropology. I guide them to think like anthropologists and let them know that there are many ways to do anthropological work. The discipline is as vast as humanity is vast and always striving to be more inclusive.”
Ruth Behar’s Inaugural Lecture takes place on Thursday, Dec. 7 from 4:00 to 5:30 p.m. in the Rackham Graduate School Amphitheatre.