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.


March 7, 2012
by Annelise Riles

Launching Meridian 180

One of my early memories of my childhood in 1970s France, with summer vacations in the Midwestern United States, crystallizes why I am an anthropologist, and what I see is the hope of comparative and international law. The memory  is in two scenes. In the 1st scene,  my 4th grade social studies teacher is teaching us about America. America is a country so polluted she tells us that on every street corner are meters that look like parking meters. When a certain alarm goes off, everyone grabs their oxygen mask from their handbags put the quarter in the parking meter like machine, obtains a dose of oxygen and wears the mask until the sirens tell them that it is safe to remove them. The other students are fascinated, and I go into internal tangles. Should I try to protest that this is utterly false? Should I try to point out that the image of selfish hedonists the teacher is painting does not correspond to anyone I personally know? no, everyone is enjoying the story too much to care.   In the 2nd scene a few months later, I join a bunch of American kids on the playground as they throw rocks across the puddle, declaring that  we are quote bombing France unquote. What follows is a chain of stereotypes of French people explaining why they deserve to be “bombed”, all negative of course, and presumably all drawn from popular media sources since none of these kids have ever been to Europe. My own recollection of all these episodes is not so much outrage as utter confusion: how can people I like and respect have so little awareness of how little awareness they have? As I grew older, of course I had plenty of opportunity to learn how that same question applied in so many ways to myself and my own myopias.  The blinders become fancier, more professional, more technologically sophisticated, more entrenched in complex institutional and cultural relationships, but just as hard to notice, let alone remove, as on that fourth grade playground.

A year ago this week, Japan was hit by them massive tsunami and earthquake, and also suffered one of the worst nuclear crises in history. In the terrible days after that incident, as each of us reflected on what we could contribute, some of us began to think that perhaps we  also needed to confront our own personal and professional and cultural myopias,  and  to find new ways to build relationships that would help us think in new and hopefully more transformative ways about the policies and choices of our societies. We wondered if understanding better how, for example, our own policies look for the point of view of another society, might help us to avoid disasters in the future, and also how we might find ways to work closely on problems that are transnational in character.

The question  of course preceded Fukushima: many of us had a longstanding sense that the intellectual conversation across the Asia-Pacific Rim region about law and regulation broadly conceived is far thinner and less substantive than it could be, and needs to be to satisfy the needs of the current moment. In thinking about the causes, it seems that some obvious ones are persisting language difficulties and difficulties reading and writing in particular, the problems and costs associated with getting very busy people to be able to spend substantial amounts of quality time together so that they can reach a deeper understanding of one another’s positions, and some degree of lack of comfort or trust.  And perhaps among some colleagues a lack of a sense that the conversation is worth investing the large amounts of time that it requires in current formats.

At the same time, many of us feel that the existing venues and formats for serious intellectual discussion are not satisfactory.  How do we encourage a far more substantive dialogue between different forms of disciplinary expertise and between thinkers in different societies?

Beginning in March, 2011, we began to pull together a special group of visionary thinkers–scholars, policy-makers and professionals–and to address some of these communication difficulties by creating a closed, online platform where people can write in their own languages and have their text translated within a short period of time by postdoctoral fellows.  Two Postdoctoral Fellows (one Japanese speaking and one Chinese speaking) are available to take any projects, research questions, or interventions that might surface out of these conversations forward. We called  this emerging conversation and community Meridian 180, after the anti-Meridian, or international date line, that divides the Pacific.  The goal of this project is to invest in the cultural and intellectual infrastructure for the next generation of trans-Pacific relations.  Through a long-term multi-lingual conversation, the project seeks to make connections and facilitate the development of relations of trust among individuals who together have the capacity to generate the new ideas and to lead the publics in their respective societies to face the significant challenges of the current moment.

Meridian 180 is a project of the Clarke Program in East Asian Law and Culture at the Cornell Law School.  It is a non-profit, non-political project funded through private donations and with support from Cornell Law School.  It is comprised of Senior Fellows and of Members in law, the academy, private practice and policy circles who meet regularly via an on-line platform supporting multilingual conversation, as well as periodically in face to face conferences.  Ideas that emerge from these conversations are then incubated and developed, with the help of Postdoctoral Fellows based in Ithaca, NY, into forms in which they can make a difference in each individual society–ranging from policy papers to academic books, blog entries, and individual conversations with policy makers.

Our current forum, “How can we bring closure to crises,” marks the anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan by reexamining this particular disaster and reconstruction project from various perspectives and by putting the issues in the context of other similar disasters around the world.

After a year of work, we are thrilled that Meridian 180 is now finally official! We still have many challenges, from finding long-term sources of funding to finding a way to convince busy elites to make room in their minds and their schedules to broaden their own cultural and disciplinary horizons.  But what is really encouraging is the progress we are making on complex legal and policy questions like “what is the scope of privacy rights in the digital age?” or “what is the role of the central bank in today’s markets?”  What is even more encouraging is the commitment many of our members have to the project and the sense they have that it serves a purpose in their lives.  For more information please see here.

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