Remembering Sally Merry: Matthew Canfield

Many people count Sally as their mentor, but she actually had just a handful of graduate students. For most of her career Sally taught at her beloved alma mater, Wellesley College, where she primarily taught undergraduates. In 2005, however, she moved to New York University because she wanted to work with graduate students, and she took the responsibility seriously. When I entered graduate school in 2009, I was among her first graduate students. For someone so productive and busy with conferences and talks, I was consistently shocked how much time she was willing to spend with her students. In the hours that we would spend together, she modeled not how to make arguments or articulate critiques, but how to listen. I quickly learned that while Sally was brilliant and brimming with ideas, her true gift was asking questions.

A few years into graduate school, I decided for personal and professional reasons that the project that I had planned to pursue was no longer viable. I had another project in mind, but it was so different than what I had been working on that I dreaded telling Sally. Would she no longer want to work with me? I prepared exhaustively for the meeting, steeling myself for her disapproval. But as soon as I began to tell about my idea, Sally smiled with genuine excitement not because of the new topic that I had proposed, but because I had let my curiosity guide me.

That was how Sally had built her career. She had followed her own curiosity to explore a wide range of socio-legal phenomena and topics, including urban danger, alternative dispute resolution, the colonial imposition of law on Hawaii, gender violence, the mobilization and translation of human rights, and, most recently, the adoption of indicators as a technology of global governance. She was undaunted that many of these projects were new terrain for anthropologists. When facing a theoretical or methodological impasse, she resolved debates, developed new methodological tools, and opened up new fields of inquiry. She did so by following the questions about law, power, and social justice that had motivated her. That was what made her a great mentor, colleague, and scholar—she inspired others with her curiosity.

While Sally’s intellectual achievements will likely remain recognized for generations, most of those who knew her will remember her for her immense generosity and encouragement. She spent hours with her students in her office, working through ideas, reading drafts, and giving pep talks.  She truly believed that we all had a perspective to contribute, and through her warmth and support, she made us believe it too. She cultivated an intellectual community not just through her ideas, but also through her kindness.

For those of us lucky to have known and worked with her, losing Sally is devastating.  But she will remain our mentor in perpetuity. She leaves us with a model of what it means to be a caring, collegial, and deeply engaged scholar, and inspires us with her passion to continue building the fields that she so loved.



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