The Weight of Absence: Musings on Hauntology and Spouses in the Field

by Margaret Rowley

I’ll start this little article lightly, with a discussion of a funny academic quirk-gone-hashtag: often in post-Malinowski anthropology, (female) spouses have accompanied their (male) spouses into the field. This was especially true before the mid-1980s, when the field was primarily dominated by men. These wives of anthropologists have frequently performed work like typing manuscripts, performing and translating interviews, running and maintaining recording equipment, and gaining perspectives unavailable to their anthropologist partners because of gender – all this in addition to the historically gendered work of gathering and preparing food and raising children. For all this they are often briefly acknowledged in the forward of many academic tomes, sometimes referred to simply as “my wife.” The trope of the brief acknowledgement of the wives of academics (not limited to anthropology) is frequent enough that it inspired the recent Twitter hashtag #ThanksForTyping. Some of the acknowledgements include tagged with #ThanksForTyping include:

My wife types badly and her spelling, punctuation, and proofreading are unreliable; but she persuaded me to pursue the subject in the first place, let few of my paragraphs escape revision, and wrote the passages I like most.”

“Finally, I should like to thank my wife and Miss Margaret Burton for their help in the preparation of my typescript.”

My wife transcribed the first draft of the manuscript, working from the Black Letter type, sixteenth-century spelling, and wondrous punctuation of the original publications.”


These unnamed women are, for the most part, silent participants in the creation of the text; if the reader were to skip the acknowledgements, she would miss the mention completely. Despite this, the fingerprints of the wives are all over the books. They typed, proofed, researched, interviewed, and even wrote portions of these manuscripts. We could easily say that they are haunting their husbands’ writing.


Jacques Derrida, possibly accidentally and definitely in French, coined the recent fad-literary-criticism term hauntology. “To haunt does not mean to be present,” writes Jacques Derrida, “and it is necessary to introduce haunting into the very construction of a concept. Of every concept, beginning with the concepts of being and time. That is what we would be calling here a hauntology.” (Derrida, 1994, 202) He was talking about Marxism and the specter of Marx, but this concept could just as easily be applied to things like Beethoven’s shadow. The clever portmanteau (in both English and French) suggests the ontology of a haunting – the being of a being that isn’t.


I recently completed a fieldwork project on my husband’s music classroom. I wore two hats while working with him: I was both his spouse (a familiar figure; an insider) and an ethnographer (a stranger). Our interactions took on a certain formality, when I asked him questions about his classroom, when I interviewed him, or when I asked him to participate in some dialogic editing of what I had written about him. (1)

Our ethnographic interactions were haunted, I am convinced, by the persistent specter of the future academic reader of the ethnography I would produce. Ethnomusicologist Deborah Wong, who was in a similar situation when she started a project on Asian American heritage and her involvement with a Taiko drumming group, noted “I wrote for an academic reader though I could feel my relatives reading over my shoulder.” (From the ethnomusicology text Shadows in the Field, 83) My interlocutor-husband, as if acting out her text, literally read my ethnographic prose over my shoulder, even as I was not writing it for him. The future “academic reader” of the ethnography haunted my fieldwork relationship just as she haunted the real-time construction of the text.

For us ethnographers, hauntology is a handy concept because it allows us to process the effect that non-presence has on the field. We can account for the presence of nonexistence, the weight of absence. We can feel hauntology in the field, among our interlocutors, in ourselves, in our writing. For me, even the concept of hauntology also has the tendency to haunt.


I am interested in how hauntology can be applied more broadly, to the role of the relationship between an ethnographer and her spouse. Just as Derrida’s hauntology was applied to both the specter of a person (Marx) and to the specter of a non-person “thing” (Marxism), I would like to suggest that in many cases the “thing” haunting ethnographies are the quiet, private relationships maintained in the field.

hauntology 3.jpg

An example of what I am suggesting might be found in Clifford Geertz’s well-known article from 1972, “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight.” We learn that, “early in April of 1958, my wife and I arrived, malarial and diffident, in a Balinese village we intended, as anthropologists, to study.”  Geertz notes the presence of his “wife” throughout the article, but she remains nameless, faceless, and exhibiting no independent action. “We moved,” writes Geertz, “we ventured,” “we ran.” Geertz separately describes actions that he alone undertakes, and his wife’s actions always parallel his. We don’t know, from this article, if she is an anthropologist, what (if any) post-secondary education she has had, or if she has any interest in being in Bali at all. She exists only in the un-elaborated idea of “wife,” as absent from the ethnography as she is present.

In actuality, Clifford Geertz’s wife was the Radcliffe-trained anthropologist Hildred Storey Geertz. The Geertz’s marriage ended in the early 1980s, and Clifford Geertz died in 2006. The ethnography seems, forty years later, to be haunted twice: once by the specter of Clifford Geertz and once by the relationship between him and his then-spouse. The hauntology I am suggesting can be found in the ‘we’ of “we moved; we ventured; we ran.” The ‘we’ in Clifford Geertz’s ethnography has outlived the relationship between the Geertzes, and continues to haunt the ethnography. At the time of publication, Hildred Storey Geertz already appeared ephemeral in “Deep Play,” nameless and faceless; after their divorce, even her identity in the article as “my wife” to Clifford Geertz is rendered ghostlike.


During the Spring semester, the anthropology department graciously allowed me to participate in their proseminar for their PhD students. In that seminar, I read Renato Rosaldo’s “Grief and a Headhunter’s Rage” – a well-known piece in the anthropology world, but one to which I had not previously been exposed. The chapter chronicled events that transpired while Renato Rosaldo was carrying out fieldwork among the Ilongot headhunters with his wife, American anthropologist Michelle Rosaldo.

hauntology 4

Renato Rosaldo begins by describing his and Michelle’s fieldwork with the Ilongot community. Unlike many anthropologists in 1981, Renato uses Michelle’s full name multiple times and even invites her voice into his writing by using her own description of a “tense conversation” between himself and Ilongot friends. (Rosaldo:169) From the beginning of the article, I clearly understood that Michelle Rosaldo was also an anthropologist, carrying out her own research in the same field. In the chapter, both spouses work together to understand the rage that accompanies grief in Ilongot society, but Renato admits that “[the] force of the dilemma faced by the Ilongots eluded me at the time. Even when I correctly recorded their statements about grieving and the need to throw away their anger, I simply did not grasp the weight of their words.” (Rosaldo:168)

Essentially the grief-rage of the Ilongot headhunters is such that, when they are deeply grieving, especially when a loved one dies, their grief manifests in the form of a rage that causes them to hunt and behead other humans. “If you ask an older Ilongot man of northern Luzon, Philippines, why he cuts off human heads, his answer is brief, and one on which no anthropologist can readily elaborate,” notes Renato. “He says that rage, born of grief, impels him to kill his fellow human beings. He claims that he needs a place ‘‘to carry his anger.’’ The act of severing and tossing away the victim’s head enables him, he says, to vent and, he hopes, throw away the anger of his bereavement. To him, grief, rage, and headhunting go together in a self- evident manner.” (Rosaldo:167) Renato Rosaldo cannot seem to wrap his head around why Ilongot grief manifests this way – not with what the Western world understands as grief (sadness, despondence, mourning), but instead with palpable, actionable rage.

Thus far, this is a tale of an anthropologist in the field with his wife, struggling to understand a socio-culturally located concept that is difficult to grasp. Everything changes midway through the chapter: shortly after joining her husband to perform her own fieldwork, Michelle Rosaldo lost her footing on a slippery mountain trail, falling down a cliff and into a swollen river. The guide with whom she was walking had to inform Renato of her death.

At this point, Renato places his own emotional reaction in the center of the chapter, exploring it with a depth that may have even been uncomfortable to an anthropological audience in the 1980s:

Immediately on finding her body I became enraged. How could she abandon me? How could she have been so stupid as to fall? I tried to cry. I sobbed, but rage blocked the tears. Less than a month later I described this moment in my journal: ‘‘I felt like in a nightmare, the whole world around me expanding and contracting, visually and viscerally heaving. Going down I find a group of men, maybe seven or eight, standing still, silent, and I heave and sob, but no tears.’’ An earlier experience, on the fourth anniversary of my brother’s death, had taught me to recognize heaving sobs without tears as a form of anger. This anger, in a number of forms, has swept over me on many occasions since then, lasting hours and even days at a time.” (Rosaldo:171)

Michelle’s death has the unanticipated effect of helping Renato to grasp the grief-rage of his interlocutors more fully. He deftly sidesteps any suggestion that his grief is the same as the Ilongot grief-rage: “Ilongot anger and my own overlap, rather like two circles, partially overlaid and partially separate. They are not identical.” (Rosaldo:171) Regardless, as an anthropologist seeking to understand his interlocutors, he has made a step toward an understanding of the people he studies: Michelle, her life and her absence, have made this step possible.

Renato Rosaldo comments that “[introducing] myself into this account requires a certain hesitation both because of the discipline’s taboo and because of its increasingly frequent violation by essays laced with trendy amalgams of continental philosophy and autobiographical snippets,” suggesting that including oneself in an ethnography runs the risk of “the self-absorbed Self [losing] sight altogether of the culturally different Other.”  While there is much to say here, I will limit myself to the suggestion that the ethnographer’s partner is an Other, both Other than the ethnographer (and able to see and access things that the ethnographer may not), and Other than the subject of the ethnography. As an Other, Michelle Rosaldo played a pivotal role in her husband’s ethnography, accompanying him into the field, and providing a perspective outside of his own. Her presence, her hauntology, eventually provided a clearer understanding for her husband of the Ilongot grieving process.

In this ethnography, the death of Michelle Rosaldo is the articulating moment between a past where she was present and when Renato Rosaldo did not understand Ilongot rage, and a present where it is her absence which creates a stronger presence, allowing her husband to step closer to understanding the grief-rage of the Ilongot headhunters.


Elizabeth Freeman, in her book Time Binds, suggests that Derrida’s concept of hauntology is actually drawn from Marxism: “Marx, Derrida argues, theorizes an ethics of responsibility toward the other across time – toward the dead or toward that which was impossible in a given historical moment, each understood as calls for a different future to which we cannot but answer with imperfect and incomplete reparations.” (Freeman:9)

I would suggest that we could extend responsibility toward the Other, not only across time, but also across the boundaries of personhood. The spouses of ethnographers, named or not, haunt the manuscripts to which they contributed, which they made possible. The relationships the anthropology wives had with their author-spouses similarly haunt the text, even if those relationships eventually ended. I would dare to wager that most of us have our own special trove of specters that haunt us, made up of people both living and gone.

We can, in other words, be haunted by someone who exists in this time, but in another place; we can be haunted by someone (or something) that never actually existed at all. It seems an obvious suggestion, though, that humanity is often affected by the weight of absence. I am reticent to draw a grand-scale conclusion because I don’t wish to overpower the quiet ether of hauntology. Rather, I will suggest that perhaps one of the many things that bind us in our humanity is the specters of others, removed from us in time or space; the past, or future, or alternate present; the solid, substantial, immovable weight of absence.


Deborah Wong, “Moving,” in Shadows in the Field: New Perspectives for Fieldwork in Ethnomusicology, Gregory Barz and Timothy Cooley, eds, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International (New York: Routledge, 1994).

Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).

Clifford Geertz,  “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,” (Daedalus 134, no. 4, 2005: 56-86).

​Renato ​Rosaldo, “Introduction: Grief and a Headhunter’s Rage​,​” i​n Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993:​167-178).


  1.  At first I neglected to name my spouse with some ironic intent. Later, I was concerned that my lack of naming him might result in my replicating what I am criticizing, with respect to mid-century anthropology and the hauntological contributions of spouses. But, when I asked him whether he would like to be named in this little piece, he demurred, citing concerns about privacy in the classroom. For this reason, I’ll replicate the sins of my forebears and refer to him only by his relationship to me.



  1. They were part of the early development of the LA punk scene. I didn’t know about them myself, until I read the new book on the scene, edited by John Doe of X.

    They are mentioned in virtually every essay as an essential roots band, and as LA punk is my favorite of all the versions of first wave punk — which is the only real kind, in my view — I took particular interest.

    The book is outstanding and highly recommended. I probably will do a review of it, here.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. @labnut: “There is another angle to this. The terms my [wife, husband, girlfriend, boyfriend] often carry a certain cachet of pride. It signifies a kind of status and belonging.”

    I agree, and like I said somewhere up there in the comments, I’m not here to pick apart pronouns. Saying “my husband” informally does several things at once: it clarifies his gender as well as his relationship to me, and it also might explain (through the proximity of said relationship) why I’m bringing him up in the conversation. Brief, and useful.

    Formally and professionally, though, we both strive to remain [firstname lastname]. This is just us, and may not be as stringent for couples in other circumstances, but we are both professionals in related fields. It applies when I do ethnographic research on his school, or if we were to co-publish (as I hope we someday will). We are co-teaching a workshop this summer and into next year, and we actually struggled with whether to disclose our relationship in the introductory email- we have different last names and so it’s not immediately apparent that we are married, in a traditional sense. We decided not to, because we’re both qualified and the fact that we’re married has nothing to do with why or how we teach. Again, this is just our relationship, but we’ve found that it has worked well for us individually and as a couple.

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  3. @Dan K- it looks like another book for my summer reading list! I find punk’s ideologies completely fascinating, but my reading so far has been totally limited to D.C. punk. I’m looking forward to digging into the west coast, and am adding this book to my Google doc to-read.


  4. Hi Margaret: You reply to that

    “In my own situation, if my spouse were to bounce ideas around with me, and then I wrote a paper and published it, I would not feel like he needs co-author credit (and neither would he), although I would likely thank him heartily in the introduction. On the other hand, if he translated for me, interviewed with me, wrote half the interview questions, secured relationships with interlocutors, wrote parts of chapters… then perhaps I would feel that it would be unethical to *not* acknowledge the depth of his contribution.”

    My claim that co-authorship can be ascribed unethically is to do with the question of what a person might put on their CV and use in job applications. It’s a bigger issue in the sciences where many-authored papers must mean that some so-called author contributions are quite minor, leading to dilution of the status of authorship.

    If a spouse did all of what you describe then certainly that is co-authorship. But if he only translated and interviewed, he’d be wrong to claim co-authorship, and to be able to compete for jobs on that basis, I think. Writing and thinking are necessary conditions of authorship.

    I’m not aware of bias against joint authorship in the humanities.

    Incidentally, I was a father-at-home for quite a long stretch (about 10 years), so I was delighted when you said you “will staunchly argue … for the incredible worth and versatility of stay-at-home mothers – this “job” (more like a CEO-ship) requires long hours, is incredibly difficult, requires a skill set that exceeds most of what one would find in the corporate world, etc.” That’s what I used to think, but it was not easy to convey that to people who had not played the role.

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