As we write, Hong Kong residents are in their sixth month of fighting threats to their autonomy and human rights from China. Egyptians are once again taking to the streets to protest their corrupt, authoritarian government. House Democrats in the U.S. are moving to impeach President Donald Trump. Thousands in Kashmir and around the world protest for Kashmiri human rights. And a 16‐year‐old girl in a rain parka has spurred hundreds of thousands of people to the streets to protest imminent environmental collapse.
From the perspective of 24‐hour news cycles and the frenetic speed of social media, these phenomena seem sudden and inexplicable. Social movements years in the making appear as seemingly spontaneous events that pundits can attribute to the energy of a nameless mass or the courage of an individual hero. Corporate universities as well as government and private granting agencies often reproduce these logics of relevance in their media communications departments, trustee and student communiques, funding priorities, hiring, and strategic plans. Using generalized language such as “speaking to the pressing matters of our times,” they favor faculty, projects, and disciplines that they think best speak to what corporate media deems “relevant,” and do so in acceptably relevant ways.
As anthropologists, we know that the relevance of these events extends far beyond the short flashes in which they appear as media spectacle. Headlines and hashtags coalesce meaning, and they can even motivate action. But such punctuated moments of energy and protest, or catastrophe and disaster, are but singular frames in ongoing struggles.
This issue of PoLAR gives lie to any thin notion of relevance. The articles exemplify the ways in which relevance means something other than chasing the latest political event or theoretical framing. The pieces are contemporary: an outside reader quickly scanning the abstracts might wonder whether we had collected articles specifically meant to respond to the current news cycle. Yet what makes these pieces so relevant is not their overlap with the news, but rather the questions the authors ask as political and legal anthropologists, questions that get at the core of fundamental struggles that long have, and long will, shape our world. Here relevance comes from being grounded. Such ethnographic grounding means attention to the issues that mean most to the people with whom we research and write. These issues speak to deeper relations of power and personhood. Such struggles are critical to understanding the world around us—even if they only rarely become visible through the frame of a crisis that triggers more focused international attention.
The pieces in this issue deal with ongoing questions of racial, class and environmental justice. They examine how people seek justice in myriad ways—from everyday affective and sonic encounters to formal institutions that adjudicate rights, such as international courts and tribunals (Clarke, Prete and Cournil, Rousseau, Talebi). They deal with how racialized and gendered aspects of the law in practice render invisible, absent, silent, and indeed irrelevant certain subjectivities, voices, and claims (Gribaldo, Rodriguez, Rousseau, Talebi). They trace how social forms too often deemed irrelevant to “real” politics (e.g., women’s hospitality, fake social media accounts, or minority media) become the basis for consequential political action and struggles for bodily, religious, and territorial sovereignty (Özkan, Shirinian, Solana). And they deal with state power as it extends to manage the transnational flow of persons and the biopolitical nourishment of citizens’ bodies (Dandurand, Hallett). Through careful, long‐term research, these authors speak back to simplistic notions of what counts as relevant, both in their field sites and in world news.
While we are under increasing pressure to chase relevance in the media and market‐shaped frameworks of the contemporary university, we should remember that relevance is an ongoing relationship to what matters. As this issue shows, what matters, and to whom, is socially and historically variable, and always open to contest both small and large. By tracking such processes over the long term, ethnographic inquiry will lead, rather than follow, relevant engagement with the world around us.
Jessica Greenberg and Jessica Winegar
Symposium: Desire for Justice, Desire for Law: An Ethnography of Peoples’ Tribunals
Chowra Makarem and Pardis Shafafi
Affective Justice: The Racialized Imaginaries of International Justice
Kamari Maxine Clarke
The Burden of Intimate Partner Violence: Evidence, Experience, and Persuasion
Present Absence In Dependency Law: The Erasure of Noncitizen Parents in the San Diego–Tijuana Region
Naomi Glenn‐Levin Rodriguez
Fakeness: Digital Inauthenticity and Emergent Political Tactics in Armenia