Remembering Sally Merry: Ram Natarajan

Sally Merry’s research and teaching attended to the most complicated of subjects, bringing to them great clarity with the questions she asked and the accuracy with which her framings comprehended all we live and study.  She had a gift—among her many gifts—for asking questions that could inspire a class to really talk, or else orient fields of study.  As a young graduate student taking my first class with her on the Anthropology of Violence, I could never understand how she could ask a single question that would sustain two and a half hours of uninterrupted discussion, with the seminar time flying by.

Sally would become my Ph.D advisor, and remain a very close part of my life for the next thirteen years, until her passing.  Her schedule at NYU was quite packed, with trips between her two offices, one in anthropology at 25 Waverly Place and the other in the Law School, darting across collaborations and service all over the university, and her own prolific publishing and regular teaching and lecture invitations here and abroad, all while she commuted weekly between New York and her home in Wellesley.  Her time for her students, somehow, in the midst of all this, was generous and unabating.  Academically rigorous as an advisor, she was also extremely down to earth, and our conversations were as much about my ideas for a dissertation project on violence and Argentina as they were about hiking recommendations, Jane Austen novels, and the joyous shade of sunlight yellow, her favorite, that painted a wall of her anthropology office.  She had her life—her children and her husband, her siblings and their families, and the camping trips they took through mountains.  A call from her daughter Sarah or her son Josh would brighten her face like nothing else.  She taught me that as much as her commitments to the anthropology of law, human rights, and gender violence mattered to her, her family mattered even more.

Always humble about her success, any and all recognition of her work took her aback.  When I gave my own first conference talk, and Sally was talking to me about its structure, I told her I had figured out how to structure a talk—make the big point and then give the example and then come back to the takeaway—listening to a talk of hers two years earlier.  I still remember the wordless look on her face, like she was touched that I had found in her talk a model to emulate, and had held on to the memory.  In 2019, when she received the Franz Boas prize, the audience of her peers offered her a standing ovation, her husband Paul the first and quickest on his feet.  After she finished her remarks and came back to the table with her medal, she commented on how unexpected the standing ovation and jubilant applause had been, taking her completely by surprise.

When writing her study of indicators The Seductions of Quantification, she sent me the full draft and asked for feedback.  I had some thoughts on how her latest work was theorizing culture differently than her previous study on human rights and gender violence.  Listening to me and going through all my comments on her draft, as if I were a peer, she conferred on me a profound sense of being valued, and one of my greatest honors to date.

Years after I took her class on the anthropology of violence, I decided it was time to ask Sally how she could launch a single discussion question that could get a class debating.  She told me that the key to a good discussion was to present a puzzle—that was how you got people to parse out a thorny problem.  You had to figure out how to clarify a problem by framing it as a puzzle, asking a question that allowed people to think it through, without offering the answer.  She has shaped me so thoroughly and her influence is so pervasive that I cannot pick a single aspect as something that I can trace to her brilliance and kindness—but her lesson on how to ask questions has always stood out to me.  I always try to pose my own questions, and more, following the advice of Sally—mentor, confidante, friend.

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