Facehunting: Empathy, Masculinity and Violence among the Bugkalot


  • Henrik Hvenegaard Mikkelsen University of Copenhagen, Denmark




Bugkalot, Ilongot, headhunting, empathy, transgression, violence


This article discusses how anthropological explorations of empathy can be enriched through a focus on transgression. Empathy is commonly understood as a human capacity that allows a person to share the feelings of others through some form of mental engagement. Thereby, it is believed, empathy establishes compassionate relationships between people and prevents violence from breaking out. In this article, I suggest that the opposite may be the case: that, in fact, empathy may be the very foundation for acts of radical violence and killings. The ethnographic basis of my inquiry is research conducted among the Bugkalot (Ilongot) of northern Philippines on the practice of headhunting. I propose that empathy is what allows violence to achieve its transformative capacity. Furthermore, I seek to show how understanding headhunting as “murder” may disclose how this particular act is tied to masculine ideals of autonomy. Headhunting, I argue, targets not the head but the “face”, that is, it strikes at the very fulcrum of the ethical relation and the foundation of empathy.