Sally Engle Merry, an innovative and foundational contributor to so many areas in legal anthropology, died on September 8, 2020. Professor Merry was a former president of the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology, and worked collectively with generations of political and legal anthropologists to nurture PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review from a newsletter into a fully-fledged scholarly journal. PoLAR Online is publishing tributes from her colleagues, students, and friends so we may collectively celebrate her life and mourn her death. If you would like to share your memories of Sally Merry with PoLAR Online, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sally did brilliant work on the limits of quantification, and I find myself imagining that she might have had sage advice for us as we search for words not already taken by the nation’s daily enumerations of loss. Her insights regarding measurability, as against the immeasurability of personal experience, remain for us to contemplate in the urgency of our sorrow at her passing. “Incalculable loss” is no cliché; it is an ethnographic statement about the enduring radiance of the person mourned.
In life, Sally was a charismatic presence and a clarion voice in the profession, championing anthropology and especially the students and scholars ready to take the discipline in new directions. She had a profoundly original sense of problem, sustaining distinct but connected projects throughout the decades of career. Internationally renowned as a scholar, Sally crossed borders with seeming ease – her personal charm, curiosity and zest for conversation a ready passport that carried her around the world and across disciplines for research, conferences and collaborations. She had prodigious energy for her own pursuits and equally, perhaps even more so, in advancing others’ projects as a teacher, colleague and in her many service roles. Her early interest as an anthropologist was in the ethnography of law in the urban U.S. – pioneering work that for Sally and the many scholars she influenced yielded a horizon of access onto everyday citizens’ ideas of moral judgment and their local expressions in and out of court. Her work on “getting justice and getting even” led to ever-larger scales of engagement with the paradoxes of legal liberalism, with her work on popular justice and her extraordinary historical ethnography of colonial Hawai’i. Her detailed account of U.S. judges’ constructions of their own powers to deal with local matters they understood categorically as—and thereby brought into being—terms of indigeneity, gender, class and race remains, for me, sharply instructive as a study of law’s hegemony. Her important work on human rights in the context of violence against women followed, and—further along the arc of her longstanding concerns with the transnational settings of accountability and justice-seeking—her more recent work on indicators and quantification as technologies of knowledge and power. Each of Sally’s books was an event, and—like countless others—I was an avid reader, especially where her work on states melded with her close ethnographic attention to the agents of governance and justice-seeking. She brought those same sensibilities to her own professional responsibilities, defending the value of the profession as an enduring institution at the same time that she worked tirelessly to make room for new participants and innovative practices. She earned many honors, including the AAA’s Franz Boas award in 2019; she also earned an extraordinarily wide circle of esteem and affection.
I already knew of Sally’s work when we first met almost forty years ago, at a Law & Society Association meeting. Over the many years since then, I knew her best from the shared settings of our overlapping professional association service—with AAA, APLA, AES, and the Law & Society Association. In those arenas, I had countless occasions to witness her leadership, her open-mindedness and fairness, her intellectual energy and enthusiasm for new ideas, her agility as a mediator, and her advocacy for students’ interests as well as those of others less visible in the profession or among its potential beneficiaries. She was unfailingly generous to students, whether as a mentor or just in passing conversation. Sally cast a bright light, and she has left us light to read by.
Sally Merry possessed a formidable intellect and a gentle soul. She was such a powerful, magnetic force among law and society scholars because of this unusual combination of attributes. She was a wonderful intellectual companion, strong in her views, but generous in entertaining the views of others. That is why any panel on which Sally appeared, or any presentation she gave, was sure to be packed with attentive listeners with whom she was eager to engage.
I was lucky enough to work with Sally as a co-participant in what was then called the Amherst Seminar. We were a group of mostly recently tenured scholars drawn together by a shared interest in exploring legal ideology and legal consciousness. We wanted to have a shaping impact on the field of interdisciplinary legal scholarship. Our conversations were often intense, sometimes heated. Sally held her own in those exchanges. After all she was herself already carving out a niche as a leader in exploring legal ideology and legal consciousness by studying the way poor and working class people used lower courts.
I was, I have to admit, a bit in awe of the ethnographic sensibilities so skillfully displayed both in Sally’s work and in her invariably keen observations. But Sally always added more than her academic skill to any conversation in which she participated. Her calm demeanor and easy smile led the way through many intellectual thickets.
As our interests diverged I was regularly struck by Sally’s academic courage, by her curiosities and the way she let them lead her from project to project. She was a star, but didn’t behave like one. Instead of playing it safe and resting on her laurels, Sally took on a series of challenging projects which tested her mettle. And invariably what she produced was indeed stellar, field defining.
Last spring as the pandemic unfolded and social distancing turned to isolation and quarantine, I craved the companionship of good friends and people whose scholarship I admired. I reached out and invited several to join me in what I called a “lawish” reading group. Sally was high on my list of invitees. What fun to rejoin a seminar with her after so many years apart. Sally was back in treatment and easily fatigued. But she was not surprisingly still a fascinating interlocutor. And when the fatigue overwhelmed, Sally graciously withdrew rather than imposing on anyone.
Intelligence, curiosity, courage, generosity, and grace…Sally made the academic worlds she inhabited immeasurably better. That is a legacy she leaves and one that her passing will not diminish.
Bill Maurer and Diane Nelson
Celebrating the zesty Merry
In 2003, Sally Merry was the chair of the Program Committee for the American Anthropological Association’s annual meetings in Chicago. This meant she was responsible for corralling thousands of anthropologists into a four or five day program that included panels and sessions from dawn ’til dusk—and even past dusk. Sally had just come off of a term as president of the Law and Society Association and the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology; she was in the thick of her work on human rights and gender rights indicators; her prior work on Hawai’i, colonialism and law had just received major awards.
We had both been mentored by Sally—a lot. Each of us having begun to settle into professorial positions and trying to figure out what our academic careers might look like, we just really needed to see Sally, our touchstone, at those meetings. To check in, but also to get some words of inspiration.
We remember going to her hotel room suite. It was dark, but she had a terrific view. We entered the room, feet dragging, souls sagging from days of conferencing and the feelings of inadequacy and just plain exhaustion that conferences often produce.
We entered the room. And there was Sally! Bounding about, full of energy and tireless inspiration. A frenetic giant (well, a giant to Bill. He’s short).
“Let’s get room service!” she shouted. And we did!
We marveled at her pure force (for Sally was indeed a force). One of us said, “Sally, what’s your secret? You do so much! We can barely keep up! We are just soooo tired!”
She turned to Bill and said, “Well, Bill, I am afraid you’re out of luck.” She turned to Diane and said, “Diane, let me tell you about post-menopausal zest!”
Sally has been the zest in our lives and careers from the time Diane was an undergraduate and Bill was a graduate student. She was a fiercely devoted mentor, even for students not her own—indeed, she exploded the whole idea that anyone owns “their” students. Sally was all about creating new relationships, building networks, sustaining conversations across generations and disciplinary divides, teaching us how to mentor in turn. She also taught us to pull no punches in foisting our anthropological conceits into others’ supposedly more serious and important conversations. From the UN to community justice forums to scientific societies and beyond, Sally was a brave exponent of the value of the anthropological point of view.
She also taught us how to be a person. When Bill was accepting his first job, he was also thrust into the co-editorship of PoLAR: The Political and Legal Anthropology Review, with Sally as co-editor. We started with our first issue in 1997, and would collaboratively author editors’ introductions to each volume while stressing out over the financing, the formatting… and the binding of the journal. Yes: Sally decided we needed to have a proper binding rather than the old stapled-together weirdness of PoLAR in its early days. And of course, through sheer force of will, she made it happen. We celebrated terrific issues; we suffered threats from disgruntled authors; we sent floppy disks through the mail back and forth across the country. Along the way, Bill absorbed some of Sally’s Quaker can-do-ism: Just roll up your sleeves, figure it out, and go. No one else is going to do it for you.
In 2014 Diane, just entering post-menopause but without quite as much zest, had the great pleasure of participating on a panel honoring Sally. Her paper considered Sally’s groundbreaking work on gender and law in the context of the genocide trial of General Ephraim Ríos Mont in Guatemala and she called it “In the Worst of Times, Making Merry.” It seems like times are even worse now and there’s no making Merry now that she has passed on. But “Merry” was such a perfect name for this smiling woman who so consistently modeled stalwart grace, careful analysis, and lightheartedness in the face of the challenge of keeping on keeping on, even as she labored amidst some of the grimmest aspects of our shared world. And so was “Sally,” with its sense of going off on a jaunt, or an excursion off the beaten track. Diane had the great good fortune of having Sally as her undergraduate advisor way back when she was still at Wellesley, setting Diane off on a lifetime of jaunting. Sally even trusted her with her children, always remembering the excursions and misadventures we had when we’d meet up at the AAAs. I mourn with them the loss of their mother.
But then again, Sally has left us with so many ways of making Merry: using the sophisticated tools of analysis and ethnography that she developed over her deeply generative trajectory. This would take us from her work in the US, making “the familiar strange” of “urban danger”, and working class consciousness of the law, mediation, and popular justice, to the lovely and depressing work on the role of law in colonizing Hawaii, then extending over the Pacific to think through Fiji, then China, India, and back around to the UN, NGOs, treaty-making and monitoring. She helps us understand the utter abstraction of wordsmithing, legal wrangling, and corporate-infused indicator productions and the deeply human hopes vested in human rights’ “promise of freedom, recognition and social justice.” She paid compassionate attention to the dogged efforts across such vast scales—from individual households to neighborhoods and nations, and to the General Assembly and back—to make good on that promise. Always, always, making Merry means attending carefully to gender, to global power inequalities, to the vagaries of “culture.” It means careful explorations of the universal and vernacular and the way that’s a false binary, and of the labors of translating and transduction. Perhaps most important, making Merry means thinking dialectically about the ideas and materialities of law and hope. It means exploring the powerful possibilities embedded in the struggles for rights while also being exquisitely aware of their utterly problematic genealogy and heartbreaking limits. Sally made the profound point that the idea of human rights inspires ambitious expectations that cannot be discarded. But they do not target economic inequality or deal with systemic and structural violences. That’s the work we’ll have to keep on trying to do, without her embodied presence, true, but nevertheless with her ideas and her force still very much in our hearts and in our world.
Throughout her career Sally consistently demonstrated a keen sense for where rich and revelatory sites, institutions, and practices might lie—and how best to understand them, whether in district court clerks’ offices, UN bureaus, NGOs, or mediation sessions. This ethnographic sensibility deeply informed Sally’s catalytic contributions to the complex and lively transdisciplinary tangle of law and society research. Her intelligence, energy, imagination, and analytic chops were extraordinary, as were the intellectual generosity and warmth that infused her many collaborative projects. Sally Merry was truly an exceptional and exceptionally humane scholar and colleague.
Beyond this, however, she was an extraordinarily engaged, effective, and accomplished scholarly citizen, both in Anthropology (especially APLA and AAA) and in sociolegal studies (especially the Law and Society Association). Particularly significant were the imagination, ethnographic savvy, collegial openness, and capacity for leadership that imbued all of her organizational contributions. Her contributions to our collective scholarly life drew upon the same well-cultivated instinct for institutional analysis—and for really understanding the stakes, both individual and institutional, central to social process—that marks her scholarship. So too did her appreciative sense of her colleagues, and of how to draw upon their better qualities.
And she did this all with panache, generosity, and remarkable good humor. I happily remember working with her across multiple contexts, among them planning and then coordinating an SAR research seminar on post-colonial law in Fiji and Hawai’i, working through the challenging mysteries and political challenges of the emerging Anthrosource program, or, along with a few other lively colleagues, spending several days moving dozens of yellow post-it notes around on butcher paper grids to schedule the AAA annual meetings (yes, some things were more loosely wired and artisanal back in the paleoterrific). Imaginative, resilient, and exceptionally energetic, Sally was in all ways a wonderful colleague and a delight to work with. We will miss her informing presence, but her many contributions will continue to shape our work—scholarly, policy-focused, and organizational—for years to come.
More tributes may be found at the Law and Society Association’s memorial page: