An Interview with Sally Engle Merry (Part 2 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: Anthropologists often say that we need to talk to other researchers and to the public. What are the barriers to such dialogues?

Sally: It’s an important question. I can see at least two barriers. First, as good anthropologists we know that if you’re going to talk to someone in another field you have to spend time learning about that field. You have to figure out what questions are asked, what is considered adequate evidence, how people frame answers and questions. So, doing some ethnography of the field you want to address is a really critical first step. Second, anthropologists need to work hard to show how their insights address the kinds of larger questions addressed in other fields and what they have to say about them.  Although rich ethnography is really interesting in its own terms, the challenge is to demonstrate to other disciplines how these insights are valuable to the kinds of questions they ask. There is an unfortunate tendency in many fields to be impatient with a lot of details, yet details are the substance of careful ethnographies. One of the reasons global measurement systems such as transparency indicators are popular is that they provide quick and easily understood data without a lot of detail. One of the problems we have as anthropologists is that we like complexity and contextualization. This means readers need to attend to considerable ethnographic detail to understand an argument.  Similarly, if you compare an anthropological account with an NGO’s account of the same social problem, the NGO account typically offers a simpler story and a personal narrative.

Our work does not always fit into these other forms of knowledge and may take more effort to understand in comparison to large-scale data analyses that, for example, provide a snapshot of a society or the world. One problem anthropology confronts as it tries to describe the globalizing world is how it compares to the findings of other disciplines that use quantitative measures and generate simplified theories based on those measures. Some quantitative measures of country performance are presented in terms of global maps. These quantitative measures enable quick comparisons of levels of development, freedom, rule of law, and so forth. In contrast, anthropologists argue that variations in phenomena such as freedom or rule of law are more complicated than that. I don’t know how we get around this problem, because it is important to say that it’s more complicated, and yet that assertion alone may put people off.  We have to be able to say, “It’s complicated, but here are the big issues that come out of the details.”

Jessica: This leads to my question about graduate training.  We encourage theoretical development and skills for complex analysis. But does our training perpetuate barriers to broader-level engagement?

Sally: I find that what sometimes trips up graduate students is that the move to complexity is so intense that when students write grant proposals and even when they begin to write dissertations, they emphasize complexity rather than the simpler idea that they want to convey—what they have learned. The point of dissertation research is not just to say that “It’s all complicated and identities are multiple,” but that “I have examined a situation, and this is my conclusion, and here is where I stand.” It’s the move past “It’s complicated” to “This what I’ve seen here” that is hard to do. Maybe it takes a certain amount of hubris to say, “I have now seen this and this is what I think.” Maybe we have a harder time doing this than scholars in other disciplines that are less committed to hearing multiple voices and recognizing complexity and context. Sometimes this level of generalization is disturbing to us.

I have been looking at the problem of commensuration, which is the process by which you take different experiences, objects, persons, or conditions and make them similar enough in order to compare them. This is fundamental to survey data, census work, and other forms of statistics where you have to find something to count that is comparable. In order to generate a measurement system that is commensurable across cultures and countries, it has to be based on some uniform set of categories and actions or things that can be counted and classified.  The case I am looking at, for example, is efforts to measure violence against women at the global level.  It is possible to count if a person was hit, kicked, or slapped by asking them, but whether she is afraid or not seems too subjective to measure to some statisticians. But this is exactly the kind of thing that we as anthropologists want to know. Commensuration leads to a level of decontextualization and generalization that erases differences in a way that makes anthropologists very uncomfortable. It violates our notion of what knowledge is. The results are very different if you compare what percentage of women in X country have been kicked, slapped, or hit versus what the experience of violence feels like to a particular person, in a particular community, with a particular background and framework. From the anthropological perspective, such quantitative analysis is thin and inadequate and yet it sometimes gets more recognition than the qualitative data.

Somehow we need to find a way to work through both of these levels. This can be done by saying there is a general pattern and here are five stories. I think we need to think about methodologically engaging this more quantitative material as a way of locating our own work. I have pondered whether there is a way to get around this commensuration problem: Can we keep the complexity that we like while also doing comparisons? I don’t think it’s possible. The essence of comparison is simplification and it is finding some common thread that enables comparison. This may involve, for example, assuming that there is a dichotomous gender world, that it is easy to say whether a person is a man or a woman. Even if we say, “Wait a minute, that’s too simple—some people are transgendered, some intersexed, and many live with differing conceptions of sexuality,” the need for commensuration makes it unlikely that this complexity can be included in a system of gender categorization in a situation such as a census.  The construction of fixed categories as the basis for quantitative work disturbs anthropological notions of identity, but this is the way knowledge is being produced in many other disciplines and institutions that we need to engage with. (Column to be continued, in part 3 of 3.)

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 .

One of the reasons global measurement systems such as transparency indicators are popular is that they provide quick and easily understood data without a lot of detail. One of the problems we have as anthropologists is that we like complexity and contextualization. This means readers need to attend to considerable ethnographic detail to understand an argument.

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