By Neil Kaplan-Kelly
This essay is part of Reflective Conversation: Revisiting and Revitalizing Ethnographies of Legislatures
I developed this reflective conversation out of curiosity and frustration with the lack of anthropological insight within legislative studies and the lack of legislative insight within anthropological studies. I write this conclusion on Saturday September 18th, 2021. My Twitter homepage is full of news about supporters of the January 6th insurrection holding another demonstration regarding the 2020 presidential election in front of the US Congress. In the background as I write, there is a marathon of the television show Law and Order playing; I intentionally time my writing breaks to coincide with the reading of the verdict at the end of each episode. Law is all around me, but the legislative process is not the direct subject of these ubiquitous discourses.
The legislature seems to be the afterthought in popular culture, elections, and perhaps even politics (even when it’s the physical legislature that is under siege). Recalling Sally Engle Merry’s (2009) conception of legal consciousness, and remembering her enormous contributions to our field, it seems that courts are all around us as legible sites of law. Yet legislatures have become the end-result of political contests and, thus, are clouded as an end to a means rather than means of their own significance. These political contests are legible as rituals and arenas for performative political gestures, but we must also consider the end-products of policy that come from such pageantry—the legislative practices and processes themselves.
The contributors to this conversation have posed different approaches for anthropologists to study legislatures and legislative processes. Insa Koch argues that we must engage the legal system beyond separation of powers, and focus on how those powers can work in concert, reflecting the structural power relations of broader society. Frank Cody shows that understanding how law becomes a process of remediation and representation within the public sphere will help anthropologists uncloud legislatures and demystify their work. William Schumann demonstrates that legislatures are a key conduit for understanding distinctions between government and governance, institutions and practices. The importance of these distinctions also provoke an ethnographic challenge to re-envision law’s subjects, objects, and impacts on people in new ways methodologically (but definitely not new in practice). Emma Crewe’s work to establish a new movement for ethnographic study of legislatures and legislators will hopefully inspire a new generation of anthropologists and social scientists to pursue this research. In the same vein, Emily Grabham’s research into how legislation is written and the challenges of making legislation legible to the electorate has wider implications for collaborations between researchers and policymakers. In times of strife, this is an opportunity to make better law and better research.
My own research examines how legislatures are sites of peacebuilding in Northern Ireland, over twenty years after the end of violent sectarian conflict. I argue in my dissertation that legislatures are not just symbolic sites of peace and, following Curtis (2014), arenas for understanding rights and culture by other non-violent means. Legislatures in Northern Ireland serve as sites for conflict transformation through the discursive negotiation of histories and futures through the implications of policy. Questions of sovereignty, nationalisms, and conceptions of culture also lead Northern Ireland’s legislative spaces to becomes symbols of peacebuilding and sites of complex (and sometimes dysfunctional) social dynamics. I rely heavily on Gershon’s idea that legislation is about “contesting definitions.” Northern Ireland’s legislatures are crucial sites for how identity, citizenship, and even peace is articulated in society. The fragility of Northern Ireland’s legislatures has also meant that they are a pressure cooker for any potential tension politically and socially. Once, it would have been easy to compare this fragile site with a putatively stable institution like the United States Congress, but recent events make such a discussion even more precarious.
In the wake of the January 6th insurrection in the United States, the stakes of my research took a personal tone. I had immersed myself in understanding the importance of legislatures and now my own country’s Congress was a site of conflict. As such, I believe anthropologists must put on the “night vision” of ethnography, as Carol Greenhouse (2009) poetically calls for, and return to understanding how legislatures, and the laws they produce, operate as a social process with its own symbolic logic of meaning and rituals—especially now that they are under attack. Rather than marveling at how our democracy has come to this point, or whether there is a new (or old) blossoming of fascism in American politics (though both are valid questions), anthropologists should also seek to use our methods and unique theoretical histories to understand why legislatures have become sites of siege and how their procedures continue even in the face of violence.
On a final note, I am incredibly grateful to Ilana Gershon for inspiring me on this journey. As an undergrad, when I first began wondering about the anthropology of legislation, her work was the first ethnographic study of legislature that I encountered. It became the basis for much of my dissertation project and her work still challenges me to think critically about the law each day. The ultimate aim of this reflective conversation has been to spark new inquiries within our field and inspire new projects. I am hopeful that further research can develop new insights and new futures. I call for anthropology to further take up the study of legislatures for these very reasons.
I wish to thank all of the contributors, Jennifer Curtis, Randi Irwin, and the rest of the POLAR Digital Fellows for their support for this conversation.
Curtis, Jennifer. 2014. Human Rights as War by Other Means: Peace Politics in Northern Ireland. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Gershon, Ilana. 2011. “Critical Review Essay: Studying Cultural Pluralism in Courts versus Legislatures.” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 34(1): 155–74. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1555-2934.2011.01144.x.
Greenhouse, Carol J. 2009. “Law and Anthropology: Old Relations, New Relativities.” Law and Anthropology: Current Legal Issues (12): 47-66. https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199580910.003.0002.
Merry, Sally Engle. Getting Justice and Getting Even: Legal Consciousness Among Working-Class Americans. University of Chicago Press, 1990.