May 2018

Volume 41, Issue 1

Editors’ Introduction

When we first took on the editorship of PoLAR in 2015, there was much discussion within the subfield, as well as in the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology (APLA) more specifically, about the relationship between the “political” and the “legal” of “political and legal anthropology.” Demarcating the boundaries between such categories and domains is always challenging and, in itself, perhaps an artificial project. Indeed, as our readers know, the debate over how to define law—its universality (or not), or how to know it when we see it—was at the heart of what shaped early legal anthropology and socio-legal studies (such as in the Gluckman and Bohannan debate, in the work of Llewellyn and Hoebel, etc.). The same can be said of what constitutes the domain of the “political”: Is it about the state and institutions of power? It is about political mobilization? Is it around engagement with “political” issues? All of the above? Something else entirely? Moreover, as became clear at the APLA/PoLAR event at the 2018 American Anthropological Association Annual Meetings in Washington, DC, “Speaking Justice to Power,” anthropological engagement with urgent public issues around oppression, repression, freedom, and justice is a long tradition in the subfield (as Laura Nader aptly reminded us). With a resurgence of extremism and authoritarianism around the globe, as well as of various forms of resistance, there is the sense for many that anthropology has (perhaps) an even stronger set of obligations and opportunities for engagement. What has become even more clear is that the distinction between law and the political, if there ever was one, cannot be maintained in anthropological practice—and certainly not at PoLAR.

Alongside anthropology’s engagement with the key issues of the day, there has been the increasing sense at PoLAR that the boundaries of the subfield have widened or reconfigured themselves. This attests to growing audiences as well as the application of concepts from political and legal anthropology in new sites and terrains. We receive submissions that are all over the map, geographically and topically, and increasingly from scholars who themselves hail from all over the globe. The pieces in this issue highlight this breadth, as well as the increasing entwinement of politics and law—often in perhaps unpredictable sites. Moreover, the articles that make up this issue demonstrate that anthropologists are not alone in their inquiries into the relationship between the legal and the political. Indeed, the ambiguity of the line between the legal and the political is not just a conceptual concern but a social fact, and a means through which contemporary power is exercised, contested, and resisted (a theme that appears in various ways throughout the articles). This is not unique to our current moment, of course, but it is manifesting in particular ways.

We see how legal tools, such as eminent domain or arrest, become sites of coercion and contestation as their use triggers strategic response from those against whom they are deployed. We see how discretion is used by legal and political actors to shape actions ranging from judicial decisions to economic development. And we see how politics and its purported “others,” such as religion, interface in unique ways, and often with unexpected outcomes. We also see how actors draw on legal norms in their engagement with public policy and technical apparatuses in ways that have deeply political effects. Legal processes are shown to politicize the spheres of the “intimate,” the “domestic,” and even friendship and feeling. Finally, the law is invoked in the political production of selves and subjects. All of this suggests that if the legal and the political are difficult to distinguish today, it is because they continue to be mutually implicated and mutually constituting. Determining the precise configuration particular to a specific time and place thus remains an ongoing concern of political and legal anthropology.

As we were sending this issue to press we received the sad news of Saba Mahmood’s untimely passing. Among the many interventions she made over the course of her important career, her scholarship brought to light radically new ways of framing political action in contexts where it was often rendered invisible, in sites often coded as the antitheses of the so- called political (in terms of religion, gender, race, and ethics) (see, in this issue, especially Kowalski and Vevaina). Her work challenged us to reframe the categories, domains, and ethnographic approaches through which political action is understood, and it will continue to inspire the research of future generations of scholars. This issue is dedicated to her memory.

Heath Cabot and William Garriott


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