March 5, 2014

From Comparison to Collaboration: New Directions in the Ethnography of Law

A week ago, I gave a keynote lecture at a conference organized by anthropology graduate student at Princeton, Temple, and the University of Pennsylvania. I spoke about Meridian 180, a transnational, nonpartisan community of exceptional Pacific Rim intellectuals dedicated to enhancing the transpacific dialogue and building expertise across professional domains which I founded in 2011.    The project is includes a number of renowned anthropologists of the contemporary in its leadership who experience the project as very much an application of their ethnographic skill and a transformation of the meaning and purpose of ethnography as a method and anthropology as a discipline.  I argued to the anthropologists at the conference that the work that is going on inside Meridian 180 is “ethnography” even though it does not take the traditional forms of ethnographic research – – journal articles, monographs, and the like. We had a lively debate about this. Some participants rejected the idea that this work could count as ethnography, mainly because it seems too planned and controlled. Others asked,  it this is ethnography, then what result does it produce? What does it teach us to the world? Or how does it change the law for example?

What defines ethnography today and what is its contribution to legal studies in particular? For many years the ethnography of law was about comparison–making insight out of the differences.  Today, in contrast, it is not comparison but collaboration that stakes the most powerful claim as a scholarly method that is also a necessary professional skill and a policy-relevant practice.  Law schools everywhere are rushing to teach young lawyers how to collaborate effectively.  Collaborative opportunities also obviate the need for comparative scholarship: Who needs to read a scholarly comparison of legal institutions in India and the United States, or for that matter, who needs ethnographic research, when one can simply incorporate an Indian legal thinker into one’s project collaboratively?

Collaboration has always been integral to what anthropologists do, and so the debate at the conference was about whether collaboration has to remain instrumentally in the service of producing data (about differences between legal systems for example) to qualify as ethnography or whether there might be other contributions of, and other criteria for ethnographic research today.

The paper explores this by drawing out a contrast between our members’ form of engagement, which builds upon anthropological ideas about the transformative potential of exchange, and the traditional “free speech” approach to dialogue in the public sphere–the approach that undergirds most blogs, list serves, and the like.  It describes a small crisis event in the project that crystallized for us how collaboration as ethnography is different from what most laws and lawyers understand dialogue and collaboration to be about.  I will speak about this again at a conference at UC Irvine law school this saturday and the paper will eventually be published in the UC Irvine Law Review.


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