Remembering Sally Merry: William Garriott

I am still coming to terms with Sally Engle Merry’s death. I am trying to imagine what it will be like to attend conferences and not see her name in the program, or a new book from her in the exhibit hall. That it is so hard to imagine such a thing underscores Sally’s significance for anthropology and beyond. There was her work, of course (the definition of legal consciousness in Getting Justice and Getting Even alone has got to be one of the most cited passages of all time). But it was more than that. Sally was an institution builder. She was part of a generation of scholars, mostly women, who defined the field of political and legal anthropology. They made anthropological work central to the development of allied fields such as sociolegal studies. And they fostered institutions like PoLAR and APLA that have become important intellectual homes for countless scholars like me. Sally was a vital source of support during my time co-editing PoLAR with Heath Cabot. She was also a constant source of inspiration, someone who showed the importance of studying the United States, who modeled what it meant to be an anthropologist in interdisciplinary spaces, and who maintained a thriving research agenda while on faculty at an undergraduate-centered institution.

The last time I saw Sally speak was in May of this year at the Annual Meeting of the Law and Society Association. She was part of a roundtable discussing the legacy of the Amherst Seminar that was organized by my colleague, Matt Canfield. Despite being virtual (or maybe because?) it was a surprisingly intimate experience. All of us—panelists and audience members alike—were at home, on our computers, Zooming in from bedrooms, living rooms, kitchens, and any other space where we might find a few hours respite from the demands of pandemic living. Most of us were coming off of a uniquely challenging semester where we’d had to figure out new ways to do everything, from teaching our classes to buying groceries. In the midst of this, it was so nice to be immersed in the world of big ideas—to take a break from the challenges of the moment and to be reminded of the joys of intellectual inquiry.

Sally shared stories about the origins of the Amherst Seminar, how it emerged from a search for conversation partners and scholarly community. Embedded in these stories was an important—and now, very poignant—set of questions: What is the legacy of this effort? Are concepts like legal consciousness still relevant? And should the critical focus of the Amherst seminar still be at the center of our work?

Sally was characteristically thoughtful. She did not insist on the continued significance of the past, including her own important contributions. The world of today was different, she said, and so it called for another kind of response than the one that came out of Amherst. Law today looked weak and under threat, particularly in its capacity to provide refuge from the world’s many challenges, or to serve as a tool to combat them. Such a situation called for something more than the critique of power we were used to; it called for something that would fortify law against the forces that threaten it.

I have thought a lot about Sally’s words since the conference, and even more so since her passing. Threats to both the rule of law and the spirit that sustains it are everywhere around us. Norms are ignored, rules are violated, and the only standards seem to be double standards. I know Sally had much more to say on these topics, and it saddens me to no end that we won’t get to hear it. Still, I am reminded that Sally always had her eyes set on what law was in the process of becoming. And where her curiosity took her, the discipline seemed to follow. She lives on in her work, in the institutions she sustained, and in the many, many people she inspired. May her memory continue to inspire, and may we share in her call to be ever-attuned, as scholars, to the demands of the day.

About Jennifer Curtis

Jennifer Curtis is an Honorary Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh: http://www.sps.ed.ac.uk/staff/social_anthropology/curtis_jennifer.

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