Remembering Sally Merry: Angelique Haugerud

“Are you ready for this?” Sally Merry asked as she sat down next to me a decade ago at an executive board meeting of the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology (APLA). Sally was about to rotate off the APLA board and into the American Ethnological Society (AES) presidency. I was about to become editor-in-chief of American Ethnologist (AE). Was I ready for that? I was looking forward to it, excited about the creative possibilities. Sally made it seem momentous, and during the whirl of a AAA conference her question felt like a moment of solidarity. I’m sure she had that effect on countless others.

Sally was incisive, kind, and witty–always a welcome and generous interlocutor.  As I became better acquainted with her during her AES presidency, partly through long executive board meetings, I appreciated her imaginative leadership, generosity, and organizational acuity. Sally helped to ensure ample material support for fresh AE and AES initiatives, and she inspired us all with her energy, commitment, and openness to new approaches. Her exemplary service as AES president was just one of Sally’s many leadership roles in the American Anthropological Association; she also served as APLA president, AAA executive board member, co-editor-in-chief of PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review, and chair of a key AAA publications committee, among other positions. In addition, she took on leadership roles in the Law and Society Association.

When I taught one of Sally’s publications to Rutgers University undergraduates in 2019, they began to think in new ways about numbers as fields of power and about how quantification “shapes the world.” Students expressed particular concern about the quantification frameworks and mandates of international organizations—for example, how costly it was for countries in the global South to collect the extensive data the UN required for measuring the 17 goals, 169 targets, and 232 associated indicators for the Sustainable Development Goals.

In 2013, Sally Merry and Susan Bibler Coutin presented a stellar joint presidential address at a conference co-organized by the American Ethnological Society and Association for Political and Legal Anthropology. As AE editor, I was delighted when their published version of that address in the February 2014 issue of American Ethnologist (“Technologies of Truth in the Anthropology of Conflict”) became one of the top ten most frequently downloaded AE articles of the year. (Sally of course would want us to note the usual caveats about the limitations of quantitative evaluations of a journal article’s success!)

In these times of democratic fragility and imperiled voting technologies, we have much to learn from Sally Engle Merry’s brilliant scholarship on anthropology and law, the interpretive work embedded in measurement, and the workings of power in technologies of truth.

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