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A Life in the Law: Laura Nader and the Future of Legal Anthropology

A Life in the Law: Laura Nader and the Future of Legal Anthropology
Author(s): Mark Goodale
Law & Society Review
, Vol. 39, No. 4 (Dec., 2005), pp. 945-955
Published by: Wiley on behalf of the Law and Society Association
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A Life in the Law: Laura Nader and the Future of
Legal Anthropology
Mark Goodale
The publication of Laura Nader's latest book, The Life of the Law:
Anthropological Projects (2002), is also a time for stock-taking. At the
most recent Law & Society Association meetings (Chicago, 2004), a
multigenerational panel was convened in order to consider the
many contributions of Nader's work. Although panelists discussed
particular books and articles in their own terms, there were at
points suggestions about how Nader's work stands in relation to
the history of legal anthropology more generally. Participants were
probably rightly hesitant about going on to consider the future of
legal anthropology, particularly since Nader herself, in her own
comments, moved very quickly from intellectual autobiography to
what was at times a rousing exhortation to pursue an anthropology
of law on topics of pressing concern. This essay will continue the
process of evaluation by reviewing The Life of the Law, which nec-
essarily entails a broader consideration of legal anthropology's
prospects. This is because the book itself is both synthetic and
programmatic: Nader brings together the different strands in her
large oeuvre and assembles them in ways that give, at times, a
different meaning to her work; and, taken as a whole, the book
is also a manifesto for a more relevant and engaged anthropology
of law.
The Life of the Law began as the 1996 Cardozo Lectures at the
University of Trento, Italy, and the middle chapters are, to greater
or lesser degrees, only slightly revised versions of the lectures
Nader gave in 1996, with the introduction, first chapter ("Evolving
I would like to thank Elizabeth Boyle first for asking me to write this review essay, and
then for her insightful suggestions as the essay took shape. Elizabeth Mertz invited me to
participate in an anniversary book session at the 2004 Law & Society Association Annual
Meeting in Chicago on the work of Laura Nader, and I benefited from the spirited con-
versation during the session itself on Nader's work and its relation to current legal an-
thropology. The other panelists were, besides Laura Nader herself, Carol Greenhouse, Bill
Maurer, and Jan Hoffman French, and our exchanges helped form several of the ideas
here. Finally, I would like to thank Sally Engle Merry, who helped me consider different
possibilities for a review essay on legal anthropology. Please address correspondence to
Mark Goodale, Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University,
Fairfax, VA 22030; e-mail:
Law & Society Review, Volume 39, Number 4 (2005)
C 2005 by The Law and Society Association. All rights reserved.
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946 Laura Nader and the Future of Legal Anthropology
an Ethnography of Law: A Personal Document"), and epilogue
reflecting new additions, commentary, and the use of current
source materials through the end of 2000.1 Although the set piece
revisions of the original lectures stand as substantive contributions
to three main topics-the relationship between law and anthro-
pology, the continuing importance of reconceptualizing "law" as a
bundle of hegemonic controlling processes, and the constitutive
effect on legal drift of plaintiffs' decisions (different versions of
which, or portions thereof, have been published in other places)-
the book's lasting value will come from the way Nader accentuates
a series of arguments that had been largely implicit throughout her
writings and professional activities and, even more, the way she
locates these arguments in relation to a prospective anthropology
of law.
But before examining each of these in detail, it is worth paus-
ing to consider what I would argue is an important dimension to
Nader's work, without which her professional commitments cannot
really be understood, and one that continues to animate her eth-
nographic and theoretical engagements: her enduring belief in the
urgent need for an anthropology of law as such. Apart from her
own research activities-and the directive role she has played in
the research of many others-she has also been the leading ad-
vocate for legal anthropology outside of relatively insular anthro-
pological circles, a path that has brought her before a long series of
incredulous, dismissive, or, at best, tolerant audiences of govern-
ment officials, lawyers, judges, corporate boards, and the various
powers-that-be among the law and society community.2 Although
one can imagine that it would have been much easier for Nader to
have simply redoubled her efforts within anthropology itself-
where legal anthropology has not enjoyed widespread subdiscipli-
nary success-she chose instead to continue to insist on anthro-
pological approaches to law in a wide range of settings. Yet these
1 The clearest sign that The Life of the Law is a pre- (September) 2001 work is the fact
that it does not refer to the "war" on terror, the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the
passage of the PATRIOT Act, or any of the other developments that Nader believes require
critical scrutiny by legal anthropologists, and indeed other sociolegal scholars.
2 A classic example of this is her experience at the 1976 Pound Conference in St. Paul,
where then ChiefJustice Warren Burger launched the alternative dispute resolution (ADR)
"revolution." Although she was presumably invited in order to legitimate what she would
later come to see as an "anti-law campaign" led by a consortium of lawyers, corporations,
and, eventually, conflict resolution professionals, she refused to simply bear cross-cultural
witness to the benefits of "alternative mechanisms governed by the ideologies of harmony
and efficiency" (Nader 2002:140); rather, she confounded participants by arguing for the
expansion of the formal legal system in order to provide access to more people seeking
redress for a wider set of complaints. This response, although derived from her ethno-
graphic work among U.S. consumers, was greeted with bafflement and derision and oc-
casioned a retort by none other than Herman Kahn, the infamous thermonuclearist, who
"came to the podium waving his arms" (2002:139).
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Goodale 947
efforts do not add up to a disciplinary cri de coeur; Nader is not
concerned with the status or vitality of legal anthropology as a
matter of professional identity or prerogative. She advocates for,
and has spent her career helping to develop, legal anthropology
because she believes that anthropology, and, in particular, its most
distinctive methodology-ethnography-must be used to shine an
absolutely unique light on the workings of law. If, as Oliver Wen-
dell Holmes said,3 "[i]t is perfectly proper to regard and study the
law simply as a great anthropological document" (1920:212), then
for Nader the question becomes this: is it, in fact, read as an an-
thropological document, or something else? Likewise, what are the
consequences when this all-powerful anthropological document is
read normatively instead, or as a set of rules written to benefit the
state, or corporations, or an economic elite?
Nader's collected work can be taken as an attempt to answer
these questions. In other words, she wants to examine the process,
the reasons-that is, ideology-that a latter-day formalism con-
tinues to dominate legal theory and practice, a formalism that has
proven so resistant to Holmes's (and Nader's) arguments for al-
ternatives because it is so effective as an epistemological bulwark of
economic and other types of inequality. Anthropology, with its ten-
dency to relativize apparently natural or universal phenomena,
and as a result of its more recent canonization of cultural critique,
brings together research on legal process, consciousness, and
structure in ways that recognize the "centrality of law in social
change," but also, more important, challenge the power of "legal
hegemonies" simply by revealing them (Nader 2002:10). This
means that for Nader the value of legal anthropology does not lie
primarily in its capacity to contribute to an alternative jurispru-
dence anchored in social practice (contra the legal realism she in-
vokes), but in its nonpareil potential-heretofore unrealized-for
circumscribing law in its dominant registers.
To understand Nader's commitment to an anthropology of law
in this way is also, indirectly, to clarify an apparent conflict between
her unabated and quite public advocacy for legal anthropology on
the one hand and, on the other hand, the reluctance of anthro-
pologists and others to either include legal anthropology in the
subdisciplinary pantheon-anthropology of religion, kinship, eco-
nomic anthropology, medical anthropology, etc.-or, even more,
grant it legitimacy. This last position was most emphatically taken
3 Although it must be admitted that when Holmes invokes a law-as-anthropological-
document metaphor in order to express his early belief that the "life of the law has not
been logic, it has been experience" in another way (cited in Nader 2002:89), he could only
have been referring to the anthropology of Bachofen, Maine, McLennan, and Morgan; i.e.,
the pre-ethnographic ethnology that studied legal categories comparatively and historically
in order to demonstrate unilineal cultural evolution.
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948 Laura Nader and the Future of Legal Anthropology
by the British legal scholar Simon Roberts, who is among the non-
Americans most identified with research and writing on anthro-
pology and law. In a 1978 article, Roberts famously posed the
question "do we need an anthropology of law?" and went on to
answer it in the negative. Roberts arrived at this conclusion by first
adopting a relatively narrow working definition of the legal and
then observing that anthropologists do not gain from limiting their
research to this arbitrary, basically jurisprudential, sphere of in-
quiry.4 Instead, Roberts argued, anthropologists should continue
studying the political and social contexts of order and disputing
without trying to fit such studies into preexisting frameworks
through either the use of universal analytical concepts (Max Gluck-
man's position) or the adaptation of folk legal categories (Paul
Bohannan's position). Roberts's position became orthodox in the
United Kingdom, and an erstwhile anthropology of law was either
absorbed by other subdisciplines within social anthropology-e.g.,
political anthropology-with predictable theoretical consequences,
or its traditional questions-though not methodologies-were
taken up by comparative lawyers, legal philosophers, and eventu-
ally British critical legal studies scholars.5
But as it turns out, the contrast between Roberts and Nader
was not simply another contribution to the long series of "wasteful
and debilitating quarrels ... [and] interminable wrangling over
definition, over research strategy and over the construction of an
analytical framework" (Roberts 1978:4), as many may have as-
sumed. Indeed, in the same article in which he expressly rejected
an anthropology of law, Roberts went on to indicate several areas in
which a prospective "anthropology of dispute and order" (my de-
scription) should focus. Remarkably, at least two of the areas he
identified correspond with what developed into cutting-edge di-
rections in legal anthropology in the United States over the last 20
4 In the interests of full disclosure: Roberts was one of my teachers and mentors in
graduate school and introduced me to legal anthropology at the London School of Eco-
nomics (LSE) during 1990-1991. I am fortunate that although he took a skeptical ap-
proach to legal anthropology on analytical grounds, he nevertheless continued to teach in
the subject and encourage others to pursue it.
5 Although it is difficult to demonstrate this point conclusively, it is worth noting that
after 1978 no Ph.D. dissertation in legal anthropology was awarded at the LSE until 2003,
when Toby Kelly completed a research project entitled "Law at Work: Law, Labour, and
Citizenship Among West Bank Palestinians" (
theses.htm). One can imagine how significant it was that the legal anthropologist at the LSE
during this time was both antagonistic to the development of an anthropology of law and a
faculty member in another department (law). The LSE has been one of the most influential
center for scholarship and doctoral training in anthropology in the United Kingdom, and
so the trend I describe here can be taken to represent a much broader one outside of the
United States, especially since the LSE continues to train a sizable percentage of profes-
sional anthropologists from Western and Eastern Europe and, as always, developing
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Goodale 949
years: the intersections between law and power, and the impor-
tance of legal discourse.6 I believe these correspondences are en-
tirely coincidental, but they underscore the broader point that if
Roberts and Nader are in fact at odds, the real points of divergence
are not primarily analytical. Nader, like many American legal an-
thropologists, has been much more willing to adopt a discursive
approach to law while letting the question of what "law" is either
float or remain embedded as an aspect of legal discourse itself. This
approach does not beg the question; rather, to refuse to enter into
debates about the boundaries of law as such is simply to recognize-
and problematize-the fact that the constitution of "law" is itself a
key cultural process. And, as I have already described, Nader has
argued that because of the rise of legal hegemonies and their con-
sequences, the study of law becomes invested with an
ethical dimension such that scholars cannot simply consider what
law is, but must primarily study what law does, and, if relevant, lay
an intellectual groundwork to contribute to a shift in law's instru-
In order to evaluate Nader's work, therefore, it is first neces-
sary to distinguish between these alternative legal anthropological
frameworks. In doing so, we see again Nader's commitment to an
anthropology of law that is nondisciplinary; her major concern,
rather, is to develop a socially necessary orientation to law and legal
processes that combines analysis, ethnography, and ethics in a way
that is open to social scientists, and others, more generally. And this
brings the discussion back to The Life of the Law, because in it Nader
has given us the fullest statement of her vision for an anthropology
of law, in part by pointing toward several areas where research
should be focused, areas that are either currently embryonic, or
areas that have not yet drawn the attention of scholars.
The Political Economy of Transnational Law
In her 1990 book, Harmony Ideology: Justice and Control in a
Mountain Zapotec Village, Nader develops a sociolegal theory that
she calls the "harmony law model," which embodies "a configu-
ration of compromise, reconciliation, and win-win solutions" to
disputes that is employed "as a means of pacification ..., first as a
6 As Roberts writes, in describing the "directions which deserve to be pursued fur-
ther": "[w]e need to know much more about how rules are used, and particularly their
relationship to the pursuit of interests and the exercise of power in settlement processes";
"[t]here is much more to be learned about the different forms which settlement-directed
talking may take, and the conditions under which these forms are likely to be encoun-
tered"; and, "[t]here is ... a need to look much more closely at what people say and how
they say it in the context of disputes ... [T]alking provides one of the most important
vehicles through which people try and exercise control over each other" (Roberts 1978:7).
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950 Laura Nader and the Future of Legal Anthropology
requirement of conquest, then as a counterhegemonic response ...
to more than five hundred years of dealing with colonization"
(2002:28-9). The application of this model to Mexico meant
broadening the scope of analysis to encompass the transnational
movement of legal ideas and practices that were being employed
hegemonically and, eventually, counterhegemonically. In other
words, the development of a "comprehensive theory of village law"
(2002:29) required Nader to locate even the most apparently lo-
calized law in relation to the Spanish colonial empire, then the
Mexican nation-state, and, finally, the currents of transnational
missionizing and, later, development. At the same time that Nader
was applying the harmony law model in the Zapotec case, she was
studying the linkages between calls for legal reform, economic in-
justice, and the rise of transnational corporate capitalism (1989,
1993, 1997). Given her early and formative role in critiquing the
emergence of ADR in the United States, it is not surprising that she
was among the first to analyze the ways in which the political uses
of what I have described elsewhere as "sympathetic legalities"7
both reflect and serve, as Nader explains, "the distribution of in-
ternational power" (2002:150).8
Yet despite the fact that legal anthropologists (e.g., Maurer
1997; Merry 2001, 2003, 2005) and sociolegal scholars more gen-
erally (e.g., Dezalay & Garth 2002) have certainly studied and cri-
tiqued the various dimensions of transnational legality, there has
been insufficient attention paid to what can be understood as the
political economy of transnational law: the ways in which the
transnationalization of legal ideas and practices has actually accel-
erated a much older process of global capitalist consolidation. So
even though the critique of transnationalism has led to an emphasis
on boundary transgression, cultural hybridity, and the partial des-
tabilization of traditional epistemologies, at the same time trans-
national legalities such as human rights, the law merchant, and the
evolving regulations covering transnational migration, are being
harnessed for very specific political-economic purposes. Nader
would like to bring both of these approaches together-the cri-
tique of transnationalism with political economy-in order to, in
part, reveal the ways in which the discourses of openness, democ-
ratization, and liberal legality obscure and thus facilitate global
corporate hegemony. This is an important synthesis that opens
several new spaces for legal anthropological research, particularly
7 These are legalities that are formally understood and constituted as humanitarian,
social reformist, and counterhegemonic, yet become disciplinary when appropriated by
transnational corporate capital and its nongovernmental proxies (Goodale 2002).
8 See also Avruch and Black's (1996) important study of the exportation of ADR to
countries in the Pacific, which Nader also draws upon.
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Goodale 951
since the type of political economy of transnational law that Nader's
work implies would require ethnographic documentation of the
integrated linkages between transnational legal institutions, legal
actors across a wide range, the state, and multinational corporate
From Social Justice to Harmony and Back Again
Nader has been a close observer of the interplay between the
persistent tendency toward legal centralism and the emergence of
alternative paths to what Auerbach (1983) describes as "justice
without law." Yet unlike Auerbach and others, Nader has studied
alternatives not as a matter of legal history, or jurisprudence, but as
a historical development that is both an important type of socio-
legal practice and, at times, a reflection of broader movements to
extend or reinforce hegemonic control over "workers, ethnics,
consumers, and other more generally disenfranchised citizens"
(2002:138). Nader entered academia and began studying law in
culture at the same time that the United States was being shaken by
the rights revolution.10 This period demonstrated to her that a
vigorous engagement with the legal system-either by opposing it
when unjust, or using it to seek justice (or both)-was in many
cases a much more effective strategy for the "generally disenfran-
chised" than the pursuit of informal or alternative solutions to what
was, in fact, a problem of restricted access to the machinery of
law.11 Moreover, if the solution to marginalization and systemic
9 As Nader quite emphatically asked at the 2004 LSA session devoted to her work, in
order to draw attention to this gap in current legal anthropological research, "What about
the corporations?"
10 Nader began her doctoral fieldwork in the same year (1957), for example, that
Martin Luther King Jr. founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
11 Indeed, Nader's general refusal to adopt what in some circles is an all-too-easy anti-
legalism parallels the provocative reflections made by E. P. Thompson on the role of courts
and the formal law as apparent instruments for the protection of ruling-class interests in
eighteenth-century England. Thompson, who was a neo-Marxist social historian, dissents
from the simple antilegal view. As he explains:
Thus the law ... may be seen instrumentally as mediating and reinforcing
existent class relations and, ideologically, as offering to these a legitimation.
But we must press our definitions a little further. For if we say that existent
class relations were mediated by the law, this is not the same thing as saying
that the law was no more than those relations translated into other terms,
which masked or mystified the reality... For class relations were expressed,
not in any way one likes, but through the forms of law ...
We reach, then, not a simple conclusion (law = class power) but a complex
and contradictory one. On the one hand, it is true that the law did mediate
existent class relations to the advantage of the rulers; not only is this so, but as
the century advanced law became a superb instrument by which these rulers
were able to impose new definitions of property... On the other hand, the law
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952 Laura Nader and the Future of Legal Anthropology
oppression was more, not less, formal law, than an equally clear
corollary for Nader was the fact that conflict was the driving motor
of social reform. In order to achieve substantive equality, groups
whose interests were previously denied legal status, or who were
prevented from protecting their existing rights, would have to
publicly struggle to effect the needed changes.
In this sense Nader was reaffirming an older theoretical tra-
dition within legal anthropology and social theory more generally
that had normalized conflict and analyzed its potential as a basis for
social transformation in cases of structural inequality. Thus she
watched in dismay as the end of the rights revolution was officially
announced at the 1976 Pound conference; what followed in the
United States was a lasting swing "away from a concern with justice
to a concern with harmony and efficiency, from a concern with
right and wrong to a concern with therapeutic treatment, from
courts to ADR, from law to antilaw ideology" (2002:139). Nader
studied the consequences of the general move from social justice
and legal reform to the development of harmony and efficiency
models in the United States, while a discourse of acquiescence,
compromise, and reconciliation emerged that reflected a post-
Vietnam cultural and social psychological fatigue. Despite the per-
vasive rhetoric that celebrates ADR and "popular justice," and
urges serious social reformers to pursue communitarian, nonlegal,
and, in the case of one researcher (Tannen 1998), "Asian" ap-
proaches to conflict resolution, Nader has been a persistent and
sharp critic of what she calls "a cop-out, an avoidance of root causes
by means of human management techniques" (2002:149).
It appears that the pendulum that Nader and Auerbach de-
scribe, which swings back and forth between legal formalism and
the development of nonlegal alternatives to social conflicts, is mov-
ing away from ADR in some areas, particularly within international
and transnational contexts. Although it is still true that harmony
models form an important part of implementation strategies for
nongovernmental organizations in many parts of the developing
world, and, even more recently-as I was able to determine myself
during recent research in Romania-part of the multilayered legal
framework emerging from the expansion of the European Union,
mediated these class relations through legal forms, which imposed, again and
again, inhibitions upon the actions of the rulers ...
We ought to expose the shams and inequities which may be concealed
beneath this law. But the rule of law itself, the imposing of effective inhibitions
upon power and the defence of the citizen from power's all-intrusive claims,
seems to me to be an unqualified human good. To deny or belittle this good is,
in this dangerous century when the resources and pretentions [sic] of power
continue to enlarge, a desperate error of intellectual abstraction. (1975:262-6;
emphasis in original)
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Goodale 953
it is also true that one can point to a countertendency over the last
10 years, reflected in the emergence of international war crimes
tribunals (versus "truth and reconciliation"), indigenous rights
movements (versus negotiated settlements through mediation of
claims), and the globalization of human rights, which embody
a quintessentially legal framework. Some anthropologists have
already begun to study human rights and/as culture (Wilson &
Mitchell 2003; Cowan et al. 2001), the relationship between rights-
based approaches to social justice and local knowledge (Merry
2001, 2003, 2005), and the increasing use of rights-based strategies
by victims of ethnic violence (Ross 2003). But the discursive strug-
gle that Nader describes, between legal approaches to social justice
that are dependent on the strategic use of conflict and resistance on
the one hand, and those that seek to mediate conflict through
compromise, lumping, and the search for "common ground" on
the other, has been largely ignored as a topic for research and
analysis. New legal anthropological initiatives on this topic would
require an anthropology of ideology as much as an anthropology of
law, a reevaluation of both the function and meanings of conflict,
and, finally, a willingness to reengage with law and legal institu-
Legal Anthropology as Political Engagement
Finally, in tracing the implications of Nader's work for a future
anthropology of law, which is, to reiterate, an approach that Nader
hopes will inform the study of law across the social sciences and
beyond, we must look closer at what is perhaps the most important
argument to emerge from The Life of the Law, one which had been,
apparently, implicit in her writings over the years but which she
now underscores with a sense of urgency. The common thread
linking her various theoretical and methodological innovations is a
belief that legal anthropological research should be conceptualized
and conducted in ways that engage with legal and social problems,
not as a simple exercise in theory-practice integration, but as a
reasoned contribution to actual movements for social justice and
equality, and resistance to corporate hegemony. From Nader's
early move away from rules in order to study disputes in cultural
context, to her analysis of elite manipulation of law's ideological
potential, through the development of a user theory of law and her
12 To come back to law is not, however, to simply adopt a narrow focus on the formal
sites of lawmaking and interpreting. Rather, legal anthropologists should take law seriously
in its own terms at the same time they trace its radiations into and through corporate
boardrooms, neighborhood mediation centers, political action committees, university
research labs, etc.
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954 Laura Nader and the Future of Legal Anthropology
contrarian insistence that ADR and other supposedly progressive
alternatives to law were in fact reactionary, there is always the con-
cern with the marginalized and ignored, the anonymous would-be
plaintiff struggling with law's seeming impenetrability. A legal an-
thropology in this key is not one that some scholars would want to
pursue. But for Nader, one does not really have a choice. As she
says, "[a]nthropology is political engagement, whether we want it
to be or not. Such recognition liberates the imagination; context as
an analytical device is not enough, nor is community" (2002:230).
This is her most basic and profound point: the study and critique of
law through anthropology produces knowledge of political conse-
quence. This means that the anthropology of law will never be able
to insulate itself through the sheer power of deduction, like juris-
prudence or legal philosophy; in this sense, legal anthropology is
both more limited and more humanistic.
Auerbach, Jerome (1983) Justice without Law? New York: Oxford Univ. Press.
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Cowan, Jane, et al., eds. (2001) Culture and Rights: Anthropological Perspectives. Cambridge:
Cambridge Univ. Press.
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tation, and Importation of a New Legal Orthodoxy. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press.
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--- (1990) Harmony Ideology: Justice and Control in a Mountain Zapotec Village. Stanford:
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Goodale 955
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Mark Goodale is Assistant Professor of Conflict Analysis and
Anthropology at George Mason University. After receiving his Ph.D.
in anthropology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2001,
he served as the first Marjorie Shostak Distinguished Lecturer in
Anthropology at Emory University. During the 2003-2004 academic
year, he was a Fulbright scholar in Romania. He is the editor (with
June Starr) of Practicing Ethnography in Law: New Dialogues,
Enduring Methods (2002), and editor-in-chief of the journal
Social Justice: Anthropology, Peace and Human Rights. His
current research and writing involve human rights and culture,
conflict and social theory, and the anthropology of transnational legal
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The forum in this issue, reflecting on the problematics of the relationship between anthropology and law, as a timely focus is also indicative of how these debates revolve around disciplinary and cross-disciplinary issues. That such co-presence of anthropology and law, incorporating research in informal and formal settings, various kinds of collaboration and, in some instances, sceptical views about its value, continues to merit close attention also signals how views of differences animate a well-populated and extended field. The concerns are often articulated around an epistemic divide between anthropology and law, and allow for questioning both within and across disciplinary areas, even as much is made of the richness of an ethnographic approach to law alongside other methods and analyses, as indicated. Lawrence Rosen, in his response to the commentators in the forum, notes ‘our special area of interest is actually a great doorway into many key issues for both disciplines’, as he identifies the spaces where it is incumbent for anthropologists to act to address these cross-disciplinary challenges.
Despite much having been written about what mediation is, direct observations of commercial mediations are limited. This book grants an opportunity to observe mediation in action and also provides external commentary about the actions observed.
This article. reassesses the notions of culture that are tied up with our understandings of gender and ethnicity in colonial Oaxaca. It examines the lawsuits indigenous women leveled against husbands and lovers in the eighteenth century to revisit some canonical scholarly claims about gender culture among the region's inhabitants. Traditional scholarship has approached such cases as evidence of women's assertion of agency in their relationships with husbands and lovers or as the ethnic defense of community against the Spanish colonial state. Such approaches sidestep the law itself as a subject of analysis. When compared to the legal activities of inhabitants elsewhere in the empire, we find women's engagement with Spanish justice in Oaxaca was reluctant at best and, at times, at odds with judges' notion of the law as beyond the control of the participants. But women's instrumental engagement with law was not wholly unique to the region. It followed patterns observable in other communities, including Spain. Thus, rather than look at these documents through an ethnic or gendered lens alone, one can also read them as evidence of Oaxacan women's dynamic participation in the creation of a broader imperial legal culture that pitted local peace against legal process.
Within the burgeoning global discourse on human rights, gender violence provides one of the most important examples of the use of rights to tackle a newly defined social problem. A comparison of three quite different approaches to violence against women in a single town, each of which is rooted in a global movement, reveals sharp differences in the way the problem is defined and the solutions are imagined. One approach focuses on the assertion of rights and relies on a feminist analysis of patriarchy, another on prayer and the elimination of enemy forces within a framework of Pentecostal Christianity, and one on repentance and reconciliation within the framework of the family and the community. Despite these differences, however, all three employ similar technologies of the self, focusing on knowing feelings, making choices, and building self-esteem. This article demonstrates how globalization allows differences on the basis of religion and culture while promoting similarities in techniques of fashioning the self, thus promoting modern subjectivity in the midst of difference.