News from Within: Carol Greenhouse’s Subversive Vision

From Festschrift for Carol Greenhouse

Elizabeth Mertz[1]

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Women’s liberation movement in Washington, United States on August 26, 1970. Photo by Don Carl STEFFEN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.

As I sat down to write this, I tried to recall the first time I heard of Carol Greenhouse and her work, and was swept back to memories of my days in graduate school during the late 1970s and early 1980s. In that era, Carol’s name had cropped up suddenly as a young scholar to be reckoned with—a recent PhD from Harvard’s anthropology department who was working on law in the US in an unconventional and exciting way. Her writings soon became required reading for those of us interested in North American ethnography and also those engaged in the anthropology of law—opening up a new vision of how we might “study up and down” at the same time, to adapt Laura Nader’s (1974) famous injunction in a way entirely consistent with her vision.[2]

How was it that Carol gave us this opening gift, this first of many brilliant openings? Her work in Hopewell (1986) managed a quietly subversive feat: it looked into a seemingly prosaic American town and found law in its absence; the state in resistance to state power; the ethnographic subject in an unaccustomed place. Baptists in Hopewell forged meaning around conflict in opposition to formal law, as they defined an idealized community around law’s imagined disappearance. Anthropology had not yet reached a time of deep questioning around its own complicity in power structures and its own continued participation in the “othering” of its subjects. But already Carol had turned “us” on our heads, moving anthropologists through the looking glass to see law, community, identity—and who “we” are—in new ways: news from within in multiple ways.

Over years of Law & Society and American Anthropological Association meetings, I had the opportunity of hearing and meeting Carol in person many times, always encountering some new challenge to my own thinking in her ongoing ambitious research. But when she undertook a series of trips to Chicago, during which we met more intensively,[3] our conversations took a deeper turn—and we began what we’ve since referred to as our shared “project.” What I love about that project is that it has never come to fruition, but it has borne fruit over and over again. We debated the dilemmas of structure and agency posed by then-current work in anthropology, and asked how those questions affected the way we conceptualized our own work and roles as academics; we took some comfort in sharing the difficulties of moving between the fields of anthropology and law. We discovered that we had both been trained by women who were students of Boas: Carol studied with Cora DuBois, while I was first introduced to the history of anthropology by Freddy de Laguna. We struggled over our own positions as women in an academy that still overwhelmingly centered on male icons, and we wondered about how to turn a lens on this and other continuing marginalizations from within professions and fields we loved.[4] How could we escape complicity? How could we use anthropology’s tools to turn settled perspectives and hierarchies of knowledge inside out? And then, what would this do to our analyses of law in the US? We imagined a number of research projects that would permit us to dig down further into the semiotics, the languages, the sociocultural matrices that surrounded and hid deeper structures from view.

We each embarked immediately on our “shared project,” which somehow continued in parallel but often touching lines for decades. My own long-term research on US law professors was in many ways my response to Carol’s searching conversations with me, while she generously pulled me in to multiple outcroppings of her own vision for “our” project. As part of this, she invited me to join her and Kay Warren in editing a volume that would push forward along some of the lines we’d discussed.[5] That volume, Ethnography in Unstable Places (2002), brought a fascinating group of scholars and essays together. Carol’s introduction to the book was one of the quiet gems that exemplifies how she has continued to lead our field, pushing it to pose questions “from within and without” at the same moment.

Altered States, Within and Without

In her introduction to Ethnography in Unstable Places, Carol in typical form manages to tackle some of the most enduring puzzles of anthropological practice and theory, without the familiar kind of intratextual fanfare. It is possible, then, to miss the depth of the contributions because of the quiet elegance with which they’re stated. Here I hope to provide some of that richly deserved metalevel fanfare.

Anthropology in recent times has found itself riven—even stalled—by a number of shifts in paradigms that had left the field struggling with difficult choices. It was one thing to acknowledge traditional ethnographies’ complicity in colonial and post-colonial hegemonies, but quite another to figure out what to do about this problem. Some scholars were inspired by an unattainable (but understandable) goal of “pure representation” to focus on giving voice to anthropological subjects, in as unmediated a form as possible. For others, the path to expiation and atonement led through reflexivity, through always locating ourselves in our ethnographic narratives. In a somewhat paradoxical turn, these “post-post” times in the field have also been typified by anthropological fascination with European male social theorists—Gramsci, Habermas, Foucault, Bourdieu, and others—whose contributions, while vital, nonetheless sometimes increased anthropology’s distance from the languages, voices, priorities, and practices of its subjects—and of its own traditions.[6] And, one might be forgiven for asking, where were the women? Where were the subaltern voices that made their way into the margins of the field but only slowly inched their ways into a required core curriculum anchored and framed by male theorists? Even the current attempt to add DuBois to that core curriculum has not addressed the gender problem. High theory at the time of Carol’s and my conversations, it seemed, still tended to fall very often to the men—in a key place where sociology and anthropology and a few other social science fields could find a core common vocabulary and set of framing concepts.  Anthropology could have made its own contributions here. From the beginning alongside Boas, we find Mead, Benedict, Hurston, and many others then and since. In patchwork fashion, we can now find Haraway, say, or Strathern or Butler taught as important building blocks of anthropological theory alongside Geertz, Giddens, and Bourdieu. But there is an old habit in anthropology that has tended to place women more into the “ethnographer” category than the “grand theorist” category.

Beyond its struggle over complicity and reflexivity, anthropology faced new problems of method, with traditional field sites no longer as stable or satisfactory in tracking ethnographic subjects and subjectivities which were moving globally—and which were responding to massive dislocations and destabilizations. At the same time, not coincidentally, the field was questioning how it wrote about power and consciousness, agency and structure—trying to fit theory to knowledge gleaned through our shifting ethnographic practices. How could we make the knowledge of our subjects/interlocutors/partners in ethnography central to our texts without abandoning our own responsibilities? Buried in many of these questions is a problem that is at once one of conceptualization and one of presentation: how do we think and write about the simultaneity of opposites? How do we talk about things that are both known and unknown?  How do we show, analyze, and present lives that are overshadowed by power but not without agency? That exist in multiple kinds of time at once? That inhabit contradictions that sometimes have to go unrecognized even as they are deeply known? And how do we do all of this while simultaneously “doing theory” in anthropology?

Enter Carol Greenhouse.[7] In the introductory essay that I am using as an example of her approach, Carol takes us on a breathtaking journey among ethnographic fields and conceptual dilemmas, where ethnography leads and grounds us in confronting theory. She joins other anthropologists, too numerous to mention, in working at this edge.[8] Her own contributions take form from the subversive upturning of ethnographic subjects that began in Hopewell and has continued through her work on neoliberalism in the US—and on anthropology’s response to it (Greenhouse 2011).[9] As we expect in anthropology, much of the work is in the writing.[10]

So let’s begin with the title of this essay: “Altered States, Altered Lives.” As any reader of Greenhouse knows, we can’t take any words at face value. What does she mean by “altered states”? The essay begins at the surface, with the obvious issue that in a time of upheaval, “established social routines—including taken-for-granted understandings of society itself—have been altered by transformations of state power” (Greenhouse 2002, 1). As she notes, the ethnographies in the volume use the destabilization of the state, visible in those moments, to go back and question “the nature of state power under more normal circumstances”—and that leads them, along with Greenhouse, to interrogate the lens through which they are examining the state:  the lens being “ethnography itself” (1).[11] She characterizes the volume’s authors as:

[T]heorizing reflexive ethnography in relation to the junctures of states and subjectivities. Specifically, by eschewing the assumption that states are organizational forms, the authors demystify the conventions of scale that ordinarily would obscure such junctures. They resist the anthropological convention that places states and society at some remove from personal lives … In the following chapters, such reified notions of “state” and “society” become ethnographic objects in themselves as authors follow the careers of these ideas in context of crisis and change. (1)[12]

Already we see the complex and simultaneous layering of epistemological, conceptual, and ethnographic framing needed to satisfy Greenhouse’s ambitious plan for this project. Ethnographers use—but also contextualize—“notions of ‘state’ and ‘society.’” How do we know about those notions? Well, we use them all the time as professionals trained in a tradition of thought. And we also test or check those notions against the expressed and/or lived experiences of the people with whom we work when we conduct our studies—participating, listening, observing, interviewing, taping, tracking online and/or through documents and other traces of lived lives.

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A man welds a pickaxe to participate in the destruction of the Berlin Wall, between the Postdam Platz and the Brandenburg Gate. The Berlin Wall separated East and West Berlin for over 28 years. Photo by Jacques Langevin/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images.

So then what is a “state”? Greenhouse takes us further, using the ethnographic foundations provided by the volume contributors to discuss how people who inhabit dissolving, crumbling, and shifting states creatively configure them as sturdy even in their absence. These “altered states” are sometimes reconfigured and projected by people acting in official capacities, sometimes by those who need and depend on what “the state” provides, and all the time by us as social analysts trying to track social forms that depend on others and ourselves for existence. All this of course takes us back to what we are doing with “the state” when it is (fictively or not) in sturdier (“normal”?) shape. And if “under circumstances of extreme instability and doubt, society itself can become a genre of performance, narrative, remembrance, critique, and hope—even as it loses any stable reference to empirical conditions,” (2) perhaps it was that way all along.

And yet, as I write this we are watching the crumbling of state apparatuses in the United States at a dizzying rate—and the difference between what we are witnessing, on the one hand, and the “everyday” instabilities of what used to be, on the other hand, matters.[13] This, too, was anticipated in Greenhouse’s text:

The pressures against the classical formulation of the nation-state in these [ethnographic] cases come from a variety of sources … [resulting in] the reconfiguration of states in circumstances of war, political upheaval, colonialism, formation of the European Union, and other transnational activities and arrangements. These altered states reverberate in people’s everyday lives, where the fluctuations of state power materialize as the presence and absence of people and resources. (5)

Drawing on Spivak (1993), Greenhouse suggests that hegemonic images of nation and state are displaced in these moments. These images have been part of the taken-for-granted backdrop of everyday life, now disrupted—“to put this more concretely, as states deform, people can see (from the street, as it were) who is doing the state’s work” (5)—and also by extension, where and what the “state” was.

Having moved this far into the nexus of dissolving states and ethnographic methods, Greenhouse takes us to a more profound level at which that nexus operates:

In the situations they describe, the authors [of the ethnographies on which Greenhouse builds] focus on situations in which people cope with uncertainty by reaching out for some sort of theory of social order or process and then attempting to live that theory. In turn, the authors consider how we might continue to do ethnography now that we know how our terms of art—such as “culture,” “ethnicity,” and “society”—double, in other circumstances, as the lexicon of fatal triage. (10)

To the latter list of terms of art, of course, we can add “the state.” But now what is that ordering which both ethnographic subjects and ethnographers conjure in their images of the state? Greenhouse’s text hints at a further step when she suggests that we look into “states of crisis as ethnographic states of affairs” that reveal as much about everyday life and identities as they do about crises (9). How does an ethnographer or a person on the street know that a state is crumbling? The proof is in local “states of affairs” that are experienced in unfolding days and minutes. Greenhouse pushes further yet when she stresses “the local identification and negotiation of the distinction between the interiority and exteriority of legal fields” (13).  Here the crumbling “state” is at once (at least): [1] the larger structure envisioned and made (at least partially) real by governments, subjects, and social scientists alike; [2] the local state of life unfolding in response to that structure; and [3] subjective experiences of self and relationships.[14]

In all this, Greenhouse develops a deep, subtle, and simultaneous layering of epistemology (both how we as anthropologists know, and how the people we study know), ontology (projections of the “state” as real in question, along with much other reality), and the subjects of social science—including more than just anthropology. Because clearly if we are to say anything about the role of the state, we must also consider the “states” in which people find themselves, in which they see themselves—and in which powerful others see them (and for that matter, in which not-so-powerful others see them, and in which we as social scientists see them).  This is a deliberate and systematic layering—not a broad brush showing merely that everything goes together. Instead Greenhouse leverages “the state” to do theoretical work far beyond the more obvious word play in her text.

I stress this because Greenhouse here invites a precision in anthropological research on current political and social arrangements—and accompanying issues of psychology, identity, culture, and more. That precision tightly links epistemological and methodological moves to changing subjects (people and topics). In doing this she moves readers past the division that falsely poses “objective positivist” approaches against “subjective interpretive” ones—because positivist approaches that ignore the dubious character of imposed static categories of analysis are as lacking in epistemological rigor as interpretivist approaches that proceed without attention to hierarchies of analytical categories used within and without the social contexts they study. Political science, sociology, psychology—even economics—have lessons to learn here, as most certainly do the fields that study law. But this move in Greenhouse’s work is even better understood if we read her in connection with one of her favorite foundational social thinkers.[15]

Bust of Émile Durkheim. Photo by Christian Baudelot. Wikimedia Commons. CC BY SA 4.0.

Is the Theory in the Reading? 

As anyone familiar with Greenhouse’s work knows, Durkheim has been a key inspiration for her at numerous points.[16] In a riveting article, “Reading Durkheim in Darkness” (2018), she guides us to an understanding of Durkheim’s Division of Labor in Society (1893) that contains many resonances with Greenhouse’s own contributions. Rereading Durkheim in the darkness of a time in 2018 when children were ripped from parents at the US border, she had “an unexpected encounter with Durkheim’s own doubts. He spells them out right from the start: the idea of social solidarity is always linked to the need for a thinkable and desirable future that may or may not be achievable” (Greenhouse 2018, 671).

While the move to “organic solidarity” is typically envisioned as progress into a modern era, Greenhouse finds in Durkheim a dark side and a huge risk:

In a long passage, he explains the greater vulnerability of organic solidarity to subversion and collapse, relative to mechanical solidarity. This is the case … because the division of labour supports social cohesion only to the extent that “contestation” arising from inequalities … can be “neutralized” in an authentic spirit of solidarity. These are very iffy … preconditions. (673)

While Book I of Division paints a possible utopia that becomes thinkable through organic solidarity, Greenhouse locates in Book III some serious caveats—under the apparently noble values of societies held together by organic solidarity can be hidden “pathological forms” of solidarity. If the high bar of the preconditions Durkheim imagines is not reached in these societies, solidarity can “collapse … back on itself,” leading to “political duplicity, self-righteousness, exploitation, and self-interestedness.” (673)

Alongside this dark side in Division, Greenhouse points us to two closely related Durkheimian themes. One is the need to encompass apparent contradictions or antinomies in any adequate account of society. Law can both signal solidarity and serve as “its deceptive simulacrum”; collective consciousness can be at once “internal to individuals” and completely distinct from individual consciousness; organic solidarity has the potential to create an ideal society and debilitating pathologies; the state could serve a special role in expressing (rather than coercing) unity but also distance us from each other as we become mere individuals bound only by contract (672–674). To deal with these contradictions, moving now to the second Durkheimian theme, we need social science:

Marking and making meaning of the distances between the thinkable and the actual is the job of social science, conceived by Durkheim as guidance for the future. His dark vision of the actual is entirely integral to the account, and to the value of social science as Durkheim adduces it, as a source of conceptual clarity and focused objective critique. (673)

Here Greenhouse situates Durkheim’s theory as fundamentally reflexive, in that sociology itself is an important figure in his theory of society: he performs his own sociology to enact the field’s “potential to make another version of society thinkable to its members.” (670)[17]

In Greenhouse’s work—including the introduction I’ve used as an example here—we also find: a theoretically informed reflexivity that is endemic to the theorist’s account of social life; a closely related formulation of epistemology (“objectivity” in Durkheim’s account, a more sophisticated and complicated development [in part from Durkheimian roots] in Greenhouse); an embrace of simultaneous contradictions—including the way an apparently growing state could be increasingly “hollowed-out”; a sense of “democratic crisis [as] central to the scope of social science—not its limiting condition” (678). This will sound like heresy, especially to Greenhouse herself, but I could not help but reflect on how far her work had taken us from where Durkheim started.

It is commonplace to remark that most texts can generate multiple readings, although we academics are not as prone to thinking that through in our own practices as we are in studying “others’.”  (One of my favorite authors on this topic is James Boyd White [1990], ruefully wondering what our texts would look like if we cited those we really read more, or read those we cited more thoroughly; for a trenchant metacommentary on law professors’ reading habits when it comes to scholars of color, see Delgado 1984, 1992.) Reading Greenhouse’s brief introduction as social theory makes clear that we have just begun to mine the depths of even this short work, let alone her major book-length contributions. And thus it should come as no surprise, but somehow it has not been made evident, that Greenhouse belongs in basic social theory classes alongside some of our more accustomed interlocutors. And, as we are increasingly discovering, so do a number of other thinkers who just have not been read “for theory.”[18]

I can close by recognizing yet another gift Greenhouse has given us. Whether in reading “the state” or reading Durkheim, whether writing on her own or generously drawing together the strands of her colleagues’ thoughts, she continues to turn the field inside out in with her quietly subversive vision.

Elizabeth Mertz is Research Professor at the American Bar Foundation, John & Rylla Bosshard Professor Emerita at the University of Wisconsin Law School, and in the upcoming academic year will be the Lichtstern Distinguished Research Scholar in Residence in the Department of Anthropology, University of Chicago. Her work focuses on language and law, legal education, and the process of interdisciplinary translation between law and social science — particularly in the context of the New Legal Realism project. She is currently conducting the third phase of a long-term study of post-tenure law professors in the United States, using multiple methods to analyze intersections of voice, race, gender, and value.


Comaroff, Jean, and John L. Comaroff. 2012. Theory from the South: Or, How Euro-America is Evolving toward Africa. New York: Routledge.

Delgado, Richard. 1984. “The Imperial Scholar: Reflections on a Review of Civil Rights Literature.” University of Pennsylvania Law Review 132, no. 3 (March): 561–578.

Delgado, Richard. 1992. “The Imperial Scholar Revisited: How to Marginalize Outsider Writing, Ten Years Later.” University of Pennsylvania Law Review 140, no. 4 (April): 1349–1372.

Durkheim, Émile. 1893/1984. The Division of Labor in Society. Translated by W. D. Halls. New York: The Free Press.

Fujii, Lee Ann. 2017. “The Real Problem with Diversity in Political Science.” Duck of Minerva (blog). April 27, 2017.

Greenhouse, Carol J. 1986. Praying for Justice: Faith, Order, and Community in an American Town. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Greenhouse, Carol J. 2002. “Introduction: Altered States, Altered Lives.” In Ethnography in Unstable Places: Everyday Lives in Contexts of Dramatic Political Change, edited by Carol Greenhouse, Elizabeth Mertz, and Kay Warren, 1–34. Durham: Duke University Press.

Greenhouse, Carol J. 2011. The Paradox of Relevance. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Greenhouse, Carol J. 2018. “Reading Durkheim in Darkness.” Journal of Law & Society 45, no. 4 (December): 664–678.

Moore, Sally Falk. 1973. “Law and Social Change: The Semi-Autonomous Social Field as an Appropriate Subject of Study.” Law & Society Review 7, no. 4 (Summer): 719–46.

Nader, Laura. 1974. “Up the Anthropologist: Perspectives Gained from Studying Up.” In Reinventing Anthropology, edited by Dell Hymes, 284–311. New York: Vintage Books.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 1993. Outside in the Teaching Machine. New York: Routledge.

White, James Boyd. 1990. Justice as Translation: An Essay in Cultural and Legal Criticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


[1] Research Professor, American Bar Foundation; John & Rylla Bosshard Professor Emerita, University of Wisconsin Law School. I thank Ilana Gershon and Charles Camic for very useful comments (and Chas in particular for a spectacular crash refresher course on Division of Labor!); Jennifer Curtis for her patient oversight; and Carol Greenhouse for gifts only partially captured in this essay.

[2] For a brief but very interesting explication of how she came to do this community-legal ethnography, see Greenhouse 2018, 668.

[3] These meetings in Chicago were extended further during several subsequent visits on my part to Princeton.

[4] “From within” is intended in at least two senses here—the marginalizations were occurring and sourced within the professions we love, and we, situated within those professions, wanted to answer “from within” using the variety of responses available to us as community insiders.

[5] The book developed from a session held at the American Anthropological Association in 1994, which Carol organized while generously pointing to our conversations as also a source for the endeavor.

[6] I hasten to add that I fully accept Spivak’s warning against “a complete boycott of so-called Western male theorists” (1993: x). This will be clear as I turn to excavate Greenhouse’s own close connection in her work with the scholarship of Durkheim. I am indebted to Lee Ann Fujii for pushing me to clarify my ideas on this, in part through her insistence that, along with DuBois and other important theorists of color, it was important that she—and all of us—still have “our” Weber, Foucault, and other familiar touchstones. (For her illuminating call to action on diversity in the academy, see Fujii 2017.)

[7] Here I shift from talking about Carol to writing about Greenhouse as a theorist and scholar; the naming shift is deliberate, as part of calling attention to implicit connections between how we write about scholars and how we think about them.

[8] Just to take just a few examples, Jean Comaroff, John Comaroff, and Sally Merry are anthropologists who use a dense combination of ethnography and history to move social theory forward. These synthetic contributions are ubiquitous now in anthropology, perhaps contributing to the problem that there are too many to single any particular figures out to be canonical sources of theory, in the way current icons were established. Whatever the reason for the shape of contemporary canons, it may be revitalizing to intellectual traditions to rethink how those canons were built and continue to be used—not with an eye to erasing forefathers, but with an eye to expanding horizons.

[9] The Paradox of Relevance (2011), as its title suggests, inhabits multiple layers in a challenging form of theory-driven reflexive work. I found it stunning and eye-opening.

[10] Of course, even when particular social sciences don’t pay attention to this aspect, much of the work of all social sciences is in the writing! Too bad they don’t read more anthropology!

[11] In writing this piece, I came to realize how deeply embedded reflexivity of a certain kind, always thickly theorized, has always been a part of Greenhouse’s work—as if she breathes it when she enters “the field.”

[12] Three points bear mentioning here.  [1] The authors of the ethnographies in this volume, here (correctly) characterized as co-creators of the paradigm Greenhouse delineates, were Carroll McC. Lewin, Robert Gordon, Howard De Nike, Stacia Zabusky, Phillip Parnell, Elizabeth Faier, James Freeman, Nguyen Dinh Huu, Eve Darian-Smith, Nancy Ries, Judy Rosenthal (and to a lesser extent, because our contributions were also built from the ethnographies in the book, Kay Warren and myself). [2] This form of collective field-building, which is at once theory-building and built from the ground of ethnography, is perhaps best done in and through edited volumes of this kind—which are, no surprise, devalued by the formal academy—but also some of the best places to find disciplines stretching and growing in intensive conversation (and note also that Greenhouse has been very active in promoting this kind of collective, serious, work). [3] I am still only on the first page of this essay. Yikes!

[13] Jean and John Comaroff have noted the retreat of the state from areas of the United States that has left them comparable to what western commentators have usually, and all too comfortably, attributed to the way things have been in very marginalized areas of the “developing world” (Comaroff and Comaroff 2012).

[14] On the last point here, Greenhouse notes that “critical aspects of personal self-identity and subjectivity are reworked in [these] contexts of critical risk” (Greenhouse 2002, 22). She goes on to explain that this is why “modern social science’s conventional rubrics of identity” often lose their power in ethnographic analyses of these situations—but then again, perhaps we should take a lesson for social science analyses generally from this realization.

[15] I privilege Durkheim here, but it’s important to note that Greenhouse casts a wide and erudite net in her theoretical guideposts, even in this small essay. Lacan, Butler, Habermas, Turner, Giddens, Laclau and Mouffe, Foucault, and Bourdieu appear alongside many others; one which I wish I could explore in more depth is Sally Falk Moore (1973), whose particular formulation of “social fields” plays an important role in Greenhouse’s synthesis.

[16] I had the great pleasure of forwarding to Carol a tape recording that my partner had found of Durkheim delivering a talk. I don’t think there’s anything I’ll be able to do in the future to top that.

[17] It would take at least another essay-length piece to explore the links between Durkheim and Greenhouse on the epistemology of social science’s “objectivity” in this register.

[18] As I reflected with some despair on how long it took me here to unpack just one aspect of one minor essay by Greenhouse, I realized the importance of this kind of exercise—because we would think nothing of this kind of approach when writing about the work of scholars we’ve been taught to accept as foundational. But it’s only when we read at a fine-grained level, with theory in mind, that we can recognize the contributions of other foundational thinkers.

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