Remembering Sally Merry: Elizabeth Mertz

My first long conversation with Sally Merry took place in 1990, during a van ride between Berkeley and the San Francisco airport.  We were somewhat covertly departing the Law & Society meetings before they officially ended, to get back home to our children, and we began comparing notes about how torn we felt sometimes between family and career.  It felt somehow transgressive at the time, as if we shouldn’t admit to each other that the juggling act was taking a toll.  We were both very dedicated to our work, and loved talking about intersections of law and anthropology – and yet on that day we found out we shared a lot more.  I was soon to read Sally’s wonderful book on discourse and working-class legal consciousness, and it became a touchstone for me at the time.  It was amazing to learn from and with her about the intersections of our many interests, about life and ethics and theory and meaning.

I loved the way Sally combined a bracing conviction that we could – and had to – get things done with a calm, sometimes wry humor.  When she was really aggravated about something, which was rare, you could tell by the slightest frown that would pass over her face, along with a quizzical tone of voice and the barest rise in intonation.  Something that in others might have been a loud complaint came out as a quiet but piercing set of questions about why someone had approached something in an obviously mistaken way.  And then she would shake it off and move on.

Anyone who mistook Sally’s calm for a lack of determination had another think coming.  Her persistence reminded me of water working on stone, pushing through institutional snags and disciplinary disputes with that combination of sympathy and firmness you find in highly skilled negotiators.  She used all of that in persuading me to take up the editorship of PoLAR, while also conveying a deep sense of confidence and support which I appreciated very much.

If Sally’s strength and determination could sneak up on you, so could her quiet brilliance.  In some ways, being the understated and modest person she was, I wonder if she herself realized the extent of that brilliance.  When she “did theory,” it was every bit as sophisticated as those who make a bigger fuss about it.  And it was grounded in truly exceptional empirical work.  I insist on the word “empirical” here because, really, the best work of that kind does not limit its inquiry to particular kinds of methods, but rather fits the methods to the research question.  Sally blew my mind with the way she worked her way around research questions.  If you needed to do a community survey, she did it.  If the setting posed challenges to traditional ethnographic approaches, she did great ethnographic work but went beyond it.  Trying to understand how law worked in and out of courts took her from qualitative to quantitative to historical research and back again.  New England, Hawai’i, multi-sited work around the world; she went where the questions took her.

I remember at one point worrying about the scope of her project on domestic violence, which was requiring so much travel and energy.  But as we sat at lunch talking it over, she looked at me, raised an eyebrow, and asked me why it was so hard to get anthropologists interested in indicators.  (So obviously I had way underestimated her energy!)  This issue of indicators was really important, she stressed, how could it be so hard to get anthropologists to see that?  And before long, I found myself helping her and Kim Scheppele organize a conference at Princeton on …. Indicators!  They brought together a riveting mix of policymakers and academics from all kinds of fields, and I think a lot of us began to see the light on why it was so important.

The combined sense of urgency and raw intellectual interest were joined in Sally with enormous generosity to colleagues, students, and the many fields in which she was a force.  I swear there was a period of time when Sally and Carol Greenhouse between them were quietly covering a huge percentage of the tenure, journal article, and book manuscript reviews in our field while also taking care of their own scholarship and teaching and other service.  (Of course, before and since then the list of names of contributors to those endeavors is enormous, and I in no way want to slight them.)

I got to see this close up when I worked with a group of law-and-society scholars, many of whom taught in law schools, in founding the New Legal Realism movement.  Sally was there from the opening conference to the most recent two-volume set of NLR books, one of which she co-edited along with Heinz Klug.  She saw immediately why translating sociolegal research within the legal academy might be important for the field, and she gave of her increasingly limited time without hesitation.

Sally once told me that by the time she was finishing any particular project she was bored with it – not, as with so many of us, because she was mired down in the current project, but because she’d already wrapped her mind around the next one and was impatient to get on with that.  She had a restless and searching intellect, and she took all of us along for the journey.  It wasn’t enough to just do a project on her own; she created networks and mentored younger scholars.  Her grants for the Indicators project went way beyond funding her own individual research.  And of course, she took leadership roles in the American Anthropological Association – and the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology – as well as being President of the Law & Society Association.  But you’d never know it, because she was more interested in talking about ideas than about her accomplishments.

I visited Sally at her home in the summer of 2019, on a trip out east.  Like many others, I had been really worried about how much she was taking on when we knew she was ill.  But then, it was as if the work and the projects and the students and the colleagues energized her, gave her strength.  I found her upbeat and full of ideas, as usual.  And so, even though I knew the odds weren’t in her favor, it was still a huge shock to learn that she was running out of time at the end of this summer, and just heartbreaking to receive a message from her saying goodbye.  It has been an incredible gift to have her in my life all these years, as for so many others, as for our entire field.  She’ll live on in her work but also in the seeds she planted – deeply grounded in the best of theory and practice, nurtured in her students and colleagues, and ongoing in ideas still just beginning to take root and influence where we’re going next.

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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