“The Cultural Prerequisites of Law”: Engaging with the Work of Carol Greenhouse over Time

From Festschrift for Carol Greenhouse

Susan Bibler Coutin

From left to right: Ilana Gershon, Carol Greenhouse, Susan Coutin, Barbara Yngvesson, Rachael Styker and Michelle Bigenho, at a panel honoring Barbara Yngvesson, APLA-AES Meetings, Chicago 2013.

It is hard to imagine what the anthropology of law would be without the work of Carol Greenhouse.[1] My own engagement with her scholarship has spanned my career, beginning in the 1980s when I was in graduate school and continuing until today. In fact, to prepare this piece, I dug through my files and found a photocopy of her 1982 essay, “Nature is to Culture as Praying is to Suing,” with notes that I handwrote in the margins in the 1980s, when I was doing dissertation research about the US sanctuary movement, a grass-roots network of congregations that declared themselves “sanctuaries” for Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees. For example, on page nineteen of this essay, Greenhouse writes, “In some studies, courts appear as the protectors of the disenfranchised, in others, as the arms of the dominant elite.” I wrote in the margin, I imagine with some excitement, “This is the debate that I am entering,” as I was interested in the question of whether sanctuary activists’ appeals to legal constructs such as human rights challenged or reinforced power relationships. My notes about this piece and Greenhouse’s 1986 book Praying for Justice: Faith, Order, and Community in an American Town compare her ethnographic findings regarding Hopewell, Georgia Baptists, who avoided court use, to sanctuary activists, who sought to mobilize law on behalf of Central American asylum seekers. For instance, the handwritten notes that I saved in a folder with a photocopy of excerpts from Praying for Justice read:

The system of meaning whereby Hopewell Baptists avoid conflict is different from the system of meaning that sanctuary workers have. Sanctuary workers don’t believe that everything that happens is God’s will and therefore people should turn the other cheek.  They believe that injustice occurs precisely because people are violating God’s will for justice. However, within the group of sanctuary workers, people try to be nice to each other and to avoid the overt confrontations that [they believe] occur in secular politics. (Emphasis in original)

Clearly, at this early stage of my career, Greenhouse’s work pushed me to pay attention to my interlocutors’ understandings of justice, a commitment that I have retained to this day. In fact, my most recent paper examines how undocumented immigrants in the United States define belonging and deservingness (Coutin, n.d.).

Protest against US involvement in the Salvadoran Civil War in Chicago, Illinois, in March 1989. Wikimedia Commons.

In this essay, I reflect on Carol Greenhouse’s influence on my work as well as on how this influence intersected with the historical conditions in which I did research. As indicated above, my first encounters with Greenhouse’s research came at a time when I was exploring sanctuary activists’ understandings of justice and the ways that law reinforced and/or undermined the systems of power to which Central American asylum seekers were subjected. As my research shifted to examining the workings of immigration hearings (Coutin 2000), I was influenced by Greenhouse’s analysis of legal accountings in A Moment’s Notice: Time Politics Across Cultures (1996). Her later work on the ways that neoliberalism shaped anthropological projects (Greenhouse 2010, 2011) deepened my own understandings of ethnographic practices, particularly in relation to race and social justice (Greenhouse 2008). Indeed, a point that Greenhouse made regarding Hopewell Baptists seems to cut across her subsequent work: “Their sense of isolation as a group and their real isolation from the courts are products of the particular cross-currents that shaped the history of the town, the state, and nation” (1982, 29; emphasis added). Greenhouse maintained this historical focus when she turned her attention to community, temporality, race, identity, and ethnography itself. In my own case, my interest in the topics that intersected with Greenhouse’s work—justice, legal accountings, and ethnographic truth claims—was also shaped by historical cross-currents—specifically the securitization of immigration law that has made the lives of unauthorized noncitizens increasingly precarious. In the spirit of historical reflexivity to which this symposium is dedicated, I explore these cross-currents further below.

When I embarked on sanctuary research in 1986, I was concerned about the ways that the United States had contributed to human rights abuses and supported state terrorism, and, as an anthropologist, I was interested in agency and resistance—specifically in whether and how social actors could reinterpret cultural norms and practices to challenge injustices, particularly if the cultural norms and practices in question reflected existing power relations. I was critical of colonial and neocolonial forms of anthropology in which anthropologists from Europe or the United States studied “non-Western others” (see Bejarano et al. 2019). I was drawn to sanctuary because when sanctuary activists challenged human rights abuses and US intervention in Central America, they drew on their faith traditions to do so, and I would be writing about congregation members whose background was not necessarily that much different from my own. Moreover, my fieldwork within the movement often took the form of volunteering. Therefore, I felt I was making a difference through the process of carrying out research. At the time, national security doctrine had trained a Cold War lens on political conflicts in Central America, such that the US government supported the Salvadoran and Guatemalan authorities in their war against guerrilla movements, even though the Salvadoran and Guatemalan Armed Forces had perpetrated countless atrocities. As a “participant observer,” I helped to document asylum claims, translated Central Americans’ public testimonies about their experiences, answered phones, distributed clothing, made phone calls, and more. I encountered law in multiple forms. Movement members drew on US and international law to argue that Central Americans were refugees who deserved asylum rather than economic immigrants who deserved deportation. Attorneys and advocates represented asylum seekers in immigration court. Sanctuary activists themselves had been tried on alien-smuggling and conspiracy charges due to their involvement in the movement. Undocumented Central Americans’ abilities to live, work, and travel were impacted by US immigration law on a daily basis.

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Nora Cortinas (C), president of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo Linea Fundadora human rights organization, holds a portrait of her missing son Gustavo during a mothers’ demonstration in front of the government house in Buenos Aires circa 1982, during the military dictatorship (1976-83). Cortinas believes that the solving of the missing citizens problem is still pending and that the armed forces, the church and the politicians are still in debt with the society after 23 years of democracy. AFP PHOTO Daniel GARCIA / AFP / DANIEL GARCIA AND – (Photo credit should read DANIEL GARCIA/AFP via Getty Images)

My work on sanctuary activism and the Central American solidarity movement was informed by national security politics in the 1980s. In 1985, before embarking on sanctuary research, I spent three months in Argentina where I interviewed members of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, an organization made up of relatives of Argentine citizens who had been disappeared during Argentina’s “Dirty War” from 1976 to 1983 (Taylor 1997). The disappearances had been justified by a national security doctrine that defined any dissent as subversive, anti-Argentine, and in service of international communism (Viaggio 1983). From the Madres and other Argentines who had lived through the Dirty War, I learned the visceral effects of fear and repression (see Coutin and Hirsch 1998). The United States had supported the Argentine military government as well as Central American governments that were responsible for human rights abuses, in the name of preventing the spread of communism. I remember gathering at the home of one of my professors at Stanford to watch a televised speech in which Reagan denounced Marxism. We were reading Marxist theory in graduate seminars, and it felt disconcerting to consider that perhaps we too were being denounced in an effort to justify US political violence. These were the days of the arms race, the nuclear freeze movement (Gusterson 1996), and the divestment movement. I remember that the festive atmosphere as students occupied the Stanford quad urging the university to divest of financial holdings in companies that did business in apartheid South Africa was a striking contrast to Argentine friends’ fears that participating in a pro-human-rights rally in Buenos Aires could make them targets in the event of a future military coup. Focusing my dissertation research on the sanctuary movement allowed me to engage with a group that sought to counter the divisions, social exclusions, and violence fostered by Cold War politics.

My approach to studying the role of law within sanctuary activism resonated with Carol Greenhouse’s ethnographic work on US law. In Law and Community in Three American Towns, Greenhouse and her collaborators Barbara Yngvesson (with whom I have also co-authored) and David Engel explored “community, law, and change in the United States and the ways these shape people’s sense of identity in three different American settings” (1994, 1). In the three towns that they studied, townspeople’s discourse about law and law use were means of producing community boundaries. Longtime residents spoke of a mythologized period of past harmony that, as townspeople contended, had been disrupted by seeming uncivilized newcomers who they felt did not share their values and who brought petty conflicts to the courts. Longtime residents’ legal discourse thus created a paradox for newcomers: if newcomers initiated legal cases, they were defined as outsiders, and if they did not initiate legal cases, they were unable to challenge inequitable treatment. Greenhouse, Yngvesson, and Engel studied law not only in formal legal proceedings, but also as part of everyday life—as part of “systems of local meaning” (1994:10) that were “negotiated, articulated, reproduced, and challenged in practice” (1994: 21). I too was interested in the everyday meanings that US sanctuary workers and Central American asylum seekers attributed to law, as well as in how these were reproduced and contested in practice. Sanctuary activists in Tucson, Arizona interpreted law as a system of justice that reflected community values and that was immanent in religious and international law. These activists therefore saw their sanctuary work as a form of civil initiative that carried out civil and religious precepts promising refuge (for example, Leviticus 19:33: “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong”), rather than as a form of civil disobedience in which unjust laws were disobeyed for a higher cause. In fact, in contrast to the notions of harmony put forward by Greenhouse, Yngvesson, and Engel’s interlocutors, sanctuary activists cited religious traditions, including the prophetic tradition, social gospel, the civil rights movement, and liberation theology, as precedent for religious work that critically engaged state law.

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Supporters visit Javier Flores, and his family at his sanctuary location at Arch Street United Methodist Church in Center City Philadelphia, PA, during a March 2, 2017 Defy Trump, Defend Philly, Expand Sanctuary Rally. After a 16 month detention Javier Flores, a father of three, is in sanctuary since four months. Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

From studying sanctuary in the 1980s, I turned to work on Central American community organizations in the 1990s. My 1990s research examined a core conundrum that these organizations faced: the activism of the 1980s had resulted in policy changes that, in the 1990s, permitted Central Americans to obtain temporary status and to apply for asylum under relatively fair procedures. Yet by then, Central American civil wars were coming to an end and asylum seemed a less appropriate remedy. Notions of temporality were key to Central American activists’ and legal advocates’ efforts navigate this historical inequity. Violence did not immediately end with the declaration of peace, nor did the accords immediately change conditions that had given rise to civil war in the first place, even though the accords seemed to draw a sharp line between war and peace. With the onset of peace (Moodie 2011), solidarity workers turned their attention to other causes, but Central Americans themselves still sought to induce US authorities to recognize their legal and social realities. This task was made both more urgent and more difficult by the fact that in 1996, legal reforms stiffened immigration enforcement, expanded the range of criminal convictions that brought immigration consequences, and restricted opportunities for legalization. To understand how this changing legal context was experienced, I did fieldwork within the legal services departments of Central American community organizations, interviewed Central American immigrants and advocates, and observed court proceedings. Through this work, I learned how Central Americans sought to hold the US accountable for intervention in their homelands.

Greenhouse’s point that “every representation of time seems to entail some message about its limits” (1996: 85) was also born out in my material, as, immigrants and advocates contended that living in the United States, in and of itself, was grounds for legal recognition. Yet, when their claims took the form of legal narratives, applicants had to narrate their lives according to legal criteria, thus facing the contradiction that a life story “is constructed out of forms and circumstances that are already legible, even before they acquire their particulars” (Greenhouse 1996: 209). For example, when I attended naturalization ceremonies at the Los Angeles Convention Center in 1996, I discovered that judges celebrated diverse backgrounds as something that everyone has, thus “maintain[ing] a concept of ‘the nation’ as culturally diverse while leaving ‘community’ homogenous by definition” (Greenhouse 1996:230).

My analysis of legal activism by and on behalf of Central American asylum seekers was also shaped by the historical currents that Greenhouse detailed in her book The Paradox of Relevance (2011). In this book, Greenhouse brilliantly analyzes the ways US ethnographies in the 1990s were shaped by and critiqued neoliberal reforms in welfare, law enforcement, and immigration. Such reforms redefined welfare as a failure of personal responsibility, treated earlier measures to ameliorate racial inequality as instances of reverse discrimination, and configured immigration policies as a matter of national security. At the same time, the field of anthropology experienced a crisis of identity, as the field both critiqued and was accused of deviating from scientific objectivity. One way out of that crisis was to conduct studies that were relevant to national issues. To be “relevant,” ethnographers turned to community studies.  In so doing, they focused on such topics as identity and marginalization, and sought to speak back to reformers “through depictions of actual conditions that doubled as figurations of cultural situations: race, ethnicity, and gender being primary among these double figures” (Greenhouse 2011, 255). Paradoxically, “speaking back” required using first person narratives, appealing to notions of collective interests, and denouncing injustice—approaches that were also being deployed by policy makers in their efforts to legitimize neoliberal reforms. Insightfully, Greenhouse pointed out ways that my own work was part of these broader dynamics. For instance, I analyzed the ways that immigration hearings demanded the construction of a coherent life story, even as the circumstances of individuals’ lives worked against such coherence. For example, if an asylum applicant described being tortured and then inexplicably released, US officials could define the release as evidence that the individual was not at risk of future persecution. Applicants were held accountable for the irrationality of their persecutors’ motives.

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A Guatemalan migrant father ties his daughter’s shoes in a church sanctuary which is serving as a shelter for migrants seeking asylum on May 16, 2019 in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Approximately 1,000 migrants per day are being released by authorities in the El Paso sector of the U.S.-Mexico border, which includes Las Cruces. Las Cruces has processed over 5,000 asylum seekers since it began receiving them from the Border Patrol on April 12. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images.

Greenhouse’s approach of reading across time periods, contexts, and genres influenced my subsequent work. In my book Exiled Home (2016), for example, I drew on multiple sorts of material to recount the ways that youth who were born in El Salvador and raised in the United States understood their relationships to both countries. The book analyzes not only interviews with youth, but also poetry, artwork, political theater, drama, and some of my own experiences. This ethnography continues to explore themes of identity, but also, with youth themselves, pushes back against the framings that require identification, highlighting the inventiveness, for example, of claiming multiple origins, not all of which are national: “I was born in El Salvador, but I was raised here” (Coutin 2016: 172).  Likewise, Barbara Yngvesson and I (n.d.) have been collaborating on a book manuscript that uses a strategy of juxtaposition, bringing together not only our own research regarding transnational adoption and unauthorized migration but also films, exhibits, novels, and memoirs that depict experiences of exile. Such interweaving allows us to interrogate ethnographic form, highlighting the degree to which juxtaposition, which is intrinsic to ethnographic practice (such as participant observation) also creates the potential spaces that are both part of, yet external to, that which ethnography brings together.  In other words, ethnography is a creative practice, one that entails both documentation and innovation.

A key theme in the book that Barbara Yngvesson and I are writing is the “as if” (see also Riles 2017), a concept that has resonated with me throughout my research and that seems particularly relevant today. During the 1980s, Salvadoran and Guatemalan asylum seekers were treated as if they were economic immigrants, economic motives for immigrating to the United States were treated as if they were less meritorious than political motives, and, to pursue asylum, Central Americans had to narrate their lives as if US and international definitions of “refugee” reflected their realities (Coutin 1993). During the 1990s, immigrants were illegalized as if the United States had nothing to do with their reasons for being in the country. During the 2000s, young people who grew up in the United States were treated as if they were foreigners. And in 2020, asylum seekers are forced to remain outside the country as if they are a threat. The “as if” juxtaposes multiple realities, holding them in tension and often privileging one over the other, as when legal concepts, definitions, or decisions are allowed to shape social life—for instance, by mandating deportation or denying legal status. In our book, Barbara and I focus on the “as if” not only to explore the lives of individuals (such as immigrants or adoptees) who are presumed to not fully belong, but also to question the taken-for-grantedness of the grounds on which belonging is measured. We therefore point out that “biological kin, citizens by birth or descent, and those who remain in their countries of origin also exist in multiple worlds,” even though the “as if” nature of such individuals’ lives is often invisible (Yngvesson and Coutin, n.d., 19; emphasis in original). In the present context of heightened nativism and xenophobia, highlighting the constructed nature of naturalized categories of belonging seems especially important.

To conclude, I would like to bring together two quotes that, to me, exemplify contributions of Greenhouse’s work across time. The first quotation is the concluding sentence from the 1982 essay with which I opened this reflection: “Even if we choose to imagine heaven without law, we cannot conclude that an absence of law brings heaven to earth” (Greenhouse 1982, 31). Though written in relation to Greenhouse’s analysis of Hopewell Baptists’ aversion to law, this quote also conveys Greenhouse’s sense of law’s potential. In contrast to sociolegal studies that, at the time, critiqued the United States for its litigiousness, Greenhouse notes that law can connect people, such that increased law use may be a sign of overcoming alienation, social exclusion, and disintegration. The second is from a 2008 essay, “Life Stories, Law’s Stories: Subjectivity and Responsibility in the Politicization of the Discourse of ‘Identity.’” In this essay, Greenhouse juxtaposes the congressional hearings that led to the 1990 Civil Rights Act and Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye: “If there is a vision of justice in the novel, it is a justice that will not come from legal remedies, yet cannot come without them … Race functions as the condition of consciousness and social transformation—the scale for judging justice itself, insistently holding open every possible question of collective and personal responsibility, in a dialectic that requires law but escapes resolution by law” (Greenhouse 2008, 88). This quote presents a central legal paradox: law is required in order for there to be racial justice, yet law cannot deliver the justice that it promises.  As in Kafka’s parable of the door that is established for one who seeks the law but that cannot be traversed, the relationship between law and justice is multivalent. Neither law’s presence nor law’s absence can bring about heaven, but the quest itself, “holding open every possible question,” is worthwhile. Greenhouse’s ethnographic work has insisted that, far from being an arcane subfield, the anthropology of law is critical to understanding particular social and historical moments.  This insistence makes her work part of this quest.

Susan Bibler Coutin holds a PhD in anthropology from Stanford University and is Professor of Criminology, Law and Society and Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine, where she also serves as Associate Dean for Academic Programs in the School of Social Ecology.  Her research has examined legal and political advocacy by and on behalf of immigrants to the United States.  She is the author of Exiled Home:  Salvadoran Transnational Youth in the Aftermath of Violence (Duke 2016), Nations of Emigrants:  Shifting Boundaries of Citizenship in El Salvador and the United States (Cornell 2007), Legalizing Moves:  Salvadoran Immigrants’ Struggle for U.S. Residency (Michigan 2000), and The Culture of Protest:  Religious Activism within the U.S. Sanctuary Movement (Westview Press 1993).  With Sameer Ashar, Jennifer Chacón and Stephen Lee, she is currently writing a book, Confronting Deferral (under contract, Stanford University Press), about Obama-era deferred action programs and the uncertainty that ensued after Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) and expansion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA+) were enjoined.  With Barbara Ynvesson, she is also completing book manuscript, Documenting Impossible Realities:  Ethnography, Memory and the “As-If.”


Bejarano, Carolina Alonso, Lucia López Juárez, Mirian A. Mijangos García, and Daniel M. Goldstein. 2019. Decolonizing Ethnography: Undocumented Immigrants and New Directions in Social Science. Durham: Duke University Press.

Coutin, Susan Bibler. n.d. “Citizenship as Exceptional: Notions of Membership and Deservingness Forged Across Borders.” Unpublished manuscript. Available from the author.

Coutin, Susan Bibler. 1993. The Culture of Protest: Religious Activism and the U.S. Sanctuary Movement. Boulder: Westview Press.

Coutin, Susan Bibler. 2000. Legalizing Moves: Salvadoran Immigrants’ Struggle for US Residency. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Coutin, Susan Bibler. 2016. Exiled Home: Salvadoran Transnational Youth in the Aftermath of Violence. Durham: Duke University Press.

Greenhouse, Carol J. 1982. “Nature is to Culture as Praying is to Suing: Legal Pluralism in an American Suburb.” The Journal of Legal Pluralism and Unofficial Law 14, no. 20: 17–35.

Greenhouse, Carol J. 1989. Praying for Justice: Faith, Order, and Community in an American Town. Cambridge: Wakefield Press.

Greenhouse, Carol J. 1996. A Moment’s Notice: Time Politics Across Cultures. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Greenhouse, Carol J. 2008. “Life Stories, Law’s Stories: Subjectivity and Responsibility in the Politicization of the Discourse of ‘Identity.’” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 31, no. 1 (May): 79–95.

Greenhouse, Carol J., ed. 2010. Ethnographies of Neoliberalism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Greenhouse, Carol J. 2011. The Paradox of Relevance: Ethnography and Citizenship in the United States. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Greenhouse, Carol J., Barbara Yngvesson, and David M. Engel. 1994. Law and Community in Three American Towns. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Gusterson, Hugh. 1996. Nuclear Rites: A Weapons Laboratory at the End of the Cold War. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Moodie, Ellen. 2011. El Salvador in the Aftermath of Peace: Crime, Uncertainty, and the Transition to Democracy. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Riles, Annelies. 2015. “Is Law Hopeful?” In The Economy of Hope, edited by Hirokazu Miyazaki and Richard Swedberg, 126–146. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Taylor, Diana. 1997. Disappearing Acts: Spectacles of Gender and Nationalism in Argentina’s ” Dirty War.” Durham: Duke University Press.

Viaggio, Julio Jose. 1983.  “La doctrina de la seguridad nacional.” In La ideología de la seguridad nacional, Pp. 79-136, edited by Salvador M. Lozada, Eduardo S. Barcesat, Carlos M. Zamorano, and Julio J. Viaggio, Buenos Aires: El Cid Editor.

Yngvesson, Barbara, and Susan Coutin. n.d. Documenting Impossible Realities: Ethnography, Memory and the “As-if.” Unpublished manuscript. Available from authors.


[1] This essay’s title, “The Cultural Prerequisites of Law,” is drawn from Greenhouse 1982, 31.

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