An Interview with Sally Engle Merry (Part 3 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: Right. We see a great need for anthropologists to engage with the global, but when the global is constructed in these simplified and fixed categories then it is very difficult for us to engage. Although, perhaps it can be the anthropologists’ job to open that up and explain what we can bring to the table.

Sally: I think that is what our job is. It’s not to say “commensuration is wrong,” but to explain that comparative, quantitative information is one kind of knowledge and anthropology has another kind of knowledge to offer that complements, enriches, and deepens quantitative knowledge. In fact, our knowledge can help the data collection processes in the first place. It helps to determine what you ask and what the variables are. Deep ethnography is essential in order to figure out how to collect this kind of global comparative data.

Jessica: I think that although there is some recognition in this kind of grounded theory approach that there should be some qualitative or ethnographic influence in setting the fixed categories, that influence does not seem to be happening enough.

Sally: Well, why that doesn’t happen is an interesting question. I think it is partly because there is a long time lag and inertia in setting the categories, and once they are created they tend to have an enduring persistence so that changing them becomes difficult, particularly when they are used by scholars and policymakers and become established and legitimate. At that point, we know what they are and we take them for granted.

Jessica: By engaging in an ethnography of the global we not only contribute outside of anthropology but we also demonstrate anthropology’s possibilities by doing ethnography of the fields we would like to be engaged in; we thereby also examine the processes of knowledge production.

Sally: I think that’s right. We develop a different kind of ethnography that highlights knowledge, a different way of looking at things that is actually more sensitive to individual experience and the ways individuals are embedded in social networks.  We see this as we encounter the individualization and what sociologists refer to as “responsibilization” of our contemporary neoliberal moment. The fact that we are all embedded in social worlds in powerful ways is important.

Jessica: Is there anything else that you would like to add?

Sally: I would like to say that getting graduate student participation in AES activities is really important. Our journal, American Ethnologist, is an important gateway for professional development. We have put a lot of emphasis on graduate student workshops and participation at our recent spring conferences and we have provided more opportunities for graduate students to intersect under the AES label at the annual AAA fall meetings. We encourage students to get involved with our section.

Jessica: Why is this important?

Sally: Because this is the future of anthropology.  As we try to expand from the narrower focus of AES of the past into new areas, it is critical to have students doing new kinds of work, in different areas, as new issues come up. I generally look at the keywords in the AAA annual meetings program to see what people are talking about. The shift in areas of interests and topics is really quite profound. Kinship and modernity appear far less often as keywords than in the past, while gender and violence are more frequent. If we’re going to keep changing as a section and field, it’s very important to benefit from the energy and insight of the work of younger scholars.

Jessica: Perhaps because AES is a section with broad interests, it is better able to adapt as the field changes?

Sally: I agree. It also can serve as an intellectual home for people who are developing new areas, who are making connections between different areas, and who are connecting fields outside of anthropology with anthropology. Given AES’s interest in engagement, it can incorporate people working toward a more engaged anthropology as well. These are all spaces that AES makes available. Most sections have more limited substantive foci so that, for example, if you want to study the relationship between religion and medicine you need to participate in two sections. But the AES offers an opportunity to have conversations between these fields, or between humanitarianism and law, or between the global shape of the world and local food production practices, for example. There is a lot of boundary-crossing work happening in anthropology and it seems to me that a broad-based section like the AES is a really good place for people who are interested in that kind of work.

Jessica: AES can then possibly bring into conversation people working in very specialized fields and help to continue those conversations and boundary-crossings in our own field.

Sally: Right, which is the space where a lot of creative work happens. It is facilitated by this kind of boundary crossing: bridging, connecting, and interrogating across different forms of expertise.

Jessica: We can also facilitate the growth of attention to problems that seem particular to our subdisciplinary conversations.

Sally: Yes, so that those problems can in fact speak to broader audiences, which is very important for AES as a section and for the field as a whole. What made anthropology prominent in the twentieth century was our willingness to speak to broad issues and to public concerns, such as Margaret Mead did in her commentaries on the nature of the American family and sexuality.  These are the kinds of broad questions and issues that attract students to our courses and keep the discipline vibrant.

Contact contributing editor Caitrin Lynch at with ideas for future columns and with comments. To stay up on AES news, please visit our website at and “Like” us on Facebook at .


If we’re going to keep changing as a section and field, it’s very important to  benefit from the energy and insight of the work of younger scholars.



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