Remembering Sally Merry: Susan Bibler Coutin

I first met Sally Merry at the Amsterdam Law and Society Association meeting, in 1991, during a year when LSA had an unusual format.  Notable scholars, such as Sally, would be in particular conference rooms to lead a discussion of specified keywords.  I was a junior scholar attending LSA for the first time.  I remember going into one of the rooms and realizing that Sally was one of the scholars who was there to discuss a particular term.  I don’t remember the term, but I do remember the feeling of awe!  At the same meeting – if I remember correctly – I went out to lunch or dinner with Sally, Sue Hirsch, and Mindie Lazarus-Black, to talk about the book Contested States, which they were just embarking on.  Sally were generous with her time, and I was thrilled to get to know her personally.

Over the years, I think I’ve assigned Sally’s work in almost every law and society course I’ve taught.  Early in my career, I had students read Getting Justice and Getting Even, then later, Colonizing Hawai’i, and then Human Rights and Gender Violence, not to mention many classic articles!  Most recently, in Spring 2020, I assigned her chapter, “Ethnography in the Archives,” in my graduate ethnography seminar.  In this moment of COVID restrictions, the students were inspired to think that they could approach ethnography through archival research. We also watched an interview that Sally did in 2017 with Henrietta Zeffert regarding the “Cultural Meanings of Quantification,” which was an eye-opener for some.

There have been many moments of intellectual exchange.  I was thrilled that Sally was able to visit UC Irvine as a Distinguished Scholar, I remember strategizing with her regarding PoLAR and APLA, and she even lured me into the AAA’s Committee on the Future of Print and Electronic Publishing!  I was always impressed with Sally’s clear thinking, sensitivity to multiple concerns and issues, and ability to move forward, whether in advocating for a student or helping to negotiate a new publishing contract for the AAA.  When she was AES president, she generously offered to co-host the AES conference with APLA, and Sally and I got to write a talk together, which became a published paper, “Technologies of Truth in the Anthropology of Conflict.”

There were also many personal moments:  dinners, running into each other at conferences, going on walks, and meeting up in international settings.  I appreciated Sally’s down-to-earth attitude, willingness to just stop for a moment and chat, and ability to develop another project, going in new and fascinating directions.  Speaking of quantification:  it is impossible to measure the impact Sally Merry had on the development of many, many students and scholars.  She will be greatly missed.



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