An Interview with Sally Engle Merry (Part 1 of 3)
AES’s Graduate Student Representative, Jessica Hardin (Brandeis U), sat down with AES’s President Sally Engle Merry (NYU) in New York City in February 2013 to discuss the role of AES in today’s anthropology. Here are some excerpts from their discussion.
Jessica: In 2012 AES organized a conference with the theme “Anthropologists Engage the World,” and in 2013 the AES conference focused on the theme “Anthropologies of Conflict in a New Millennium.” How do these themes speak to the mission of AES? What is emergent in those meeting themes?
Sally: The mission of AES is to be a broad ethnography-focused association. Our overall goal is to develop and promote rich ethnography that is informed by sophisticated theory. This is our core mission. What is of particular interest to me is to be inclusive of the newer work that is developing in anthropology. AES can speak to and contribute to new movements in the studies of science, the environment, food and food production, transnationalism, and globalization, for example. These are areas where we can be innovative about method and theory but still retain our deep commitment to good ethnographic practice. I view AES as a section that seeks to find ways to use multi-sited research in small sites to address important contemporary problems. Our annual spring conferences focus on contemporary problems. We have a commitment to engagement and to addressing issues like global conflict, inequality, poverty, and the ways technology is transforming the world.
Jessica: I would like to ask you to speak a little more about directions of research. You have already mentioned new directions in anthropology as well as global/social issues and their potential convergence. What contemporary areas of research have the potential for anthropological research to speak beyond the boundaries of the discipline? It seems to me that the AES spring conferences seek to make anthropology relevant to other social sciences and beyond. What potential do you see for that, or what areas are potentially ripe for that kind of engagement?
Sally: It is clearly a strength of anthropology that we can address issues that scholars in other fields and policymakers understand differently than we do. Through using our distinctive methodology, we can focus on practices and meanings and discourses. This methodological approach is particularly important to questions about global governance, human rights, and humanitarianism. In those areas there is relatively little attention to the micro-contexts and situations in which human rights violations, humanitarian crises, and conflicts around international and domestic law take place. Work in these fields of international activity tends to be broad and global and to miss the intricate dynamics of specific situations such as how refugee camps get organized, how immigrants use health situations in order to gain permanent immigration status, how documentation influences the identity of immigrants, and a whole range of problems in which the practices surrounding the meanings and discourses used in bureaucratic and governmental processes are fundamental to understanding how they work. Many of the fields where these issues are studied, such as law, political science, and international relations, tend not to work at this micro-situational level. So, anthropologists have an enormous amount to contribute.
The field of knowledge production is another important area that appears to be a site of rapidly growing interest among anthropologists as well as political scientists and sociolegal scholars. How do we generate the knowledge about domestic affairs and global relationships that provides the basis for decision-making and governance? Who is producing this knowledge? What criteria are being adopted? This is a problem that anthropologists are well suited to explore. There has been a lot of interest recently in work on bureaucracy, audits, systems of measurement, and documentation. And as we move toward things like college scorecards to help consumers figure out where to go to college, as President Obama suggests, it is ever more important to figure out how measurement systems work, who is contributing to them, and what is being counted. Systems of measurement make some things visible and others invisible. Measurement systems that organize and present data have important implications for how we see the world and how it is governed. They are a dimension of how power is exercised, part of the power/knowledge framework. Given our historic interest in issues of power and inequality and our capacity to focus on practice, discourse, and meaning, we have a lot to contribute to these bigger questions. (Column to be continued, in part 2 of 3.)
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Systems of measurement make some things visible and others invisible. Measurement systems that organize and present data have important implications for how we see the world and how it is governed. They are a dimension of how power is exercised, part of the power/knowledge framework. Given our historic interest in issues of power and inequality and our capacity to focus on practice, discourse and meaning, we have a lot to contribute to these bigger questions.