Introduction: Reflective Conversation: Revisiting and Revitalizing Ethnographies of Legislatures

By Neil Kaplan-Kelly

Emergent Conversation 14

This essay is part of Reflective Conversation: Revisiting and Revitalizing Ethnographies of Legislatures

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3rd June 1974: A demonstration at Stormont Castle in Belfast during the Ulster Strike against the Sunningdale Agreement, which would have returned legislative powers to a local, power-sharing assembly. Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images.

“We need you to call your representative and urge them to support the bill”

This is a common refrain from activists, community leaders, and organizations. The act of contacting your political representative to express your opinion has generally been considered a simple form of civic engagement. Participating in government is rooted in the interaction between constituent and representative. The outcome of such an interaction impacts the future of the relationship especially when needs are not met from the interaction. Yet, there is often little discussion about how the subject of the interaction (the issue, the bill, or the law) has come into being or its larger social significance. The legislative process is complex and messy to the point of being compared to sausage-making. The messiness is what makes the process an elite activity that few can participate in and a system that general audiences often do not care to consider.

I approached this reflective conversation with two questions. First, why haven’t anthropologists considered legislatures more seriously as a site for ethnographic inquiry? And second, how should anthropology approach legislatures in our work? This series of essays focuses on these questions and seeks to open a new line of anthropological inquiry.

However, this is not the first moment that these ideas have been discussed in anthropological circles. This year marks the tenth anniversary of PoLAR’s publication of Ilana Gershon’s “Critical Review Essay: Studying Cultural Pluralism in Courts versus Legislatures.” This essay serves as a foundation for this conversation about anthropology’s interventions into legislative studies more broadly. Gershon’s argument that anything and anyone can be cultural in a legislative setting is pivotal for any discussion of how politics and democracy become governance and laws. Thus, this series celebrates Gershon’s contribution and creates a reflective moment for our field.

The contributions in this series each build on Gershon’s ideas. Francis Cody argues that ethnographers should embrace questions of “remediation” in how representation occurs and in larger studies of the judiciary. In the same vein, William Schumann approaches these questions with a larger lens towards differentiating between “governing” and “government” in political representation, especially in instances where questions of “culture” are invoked. Emma Crewe, another leading figure in anthropological studies of legislatures, gives a holistic discussion of the practical and theoretical stakes of ethnographic projects on legislatures. Her thoughts are echoed by Emily Grabham’s argument that anthropologists face difficulty when studying legislative forums because of how technical the process of legislation is and the “mute mundanity” of legislative systems. Insa Koch circles the questions back to their original premise and reminds us to not separate sites of governance too much for fear of losing the nuance of legal systems themselves. Our series also includes Gershon’s response to these ideas and her own vision for the future of anthropological interest in legislation. The series concludes with my own thoughts on these discussions and a call for anthropology to take legislation more seriously as an ethnographic subject.

It is my hope that this conversation sparks a new consideration of legislation as an ethnographic topic and legislatures as a site of analysis.

Neil Nory Kaplan-Kelly is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine, and a 2021 PoLAR Digital Editorial Fellow. Kaplan-Kelly’s dissertation explores how elected officials use legislation to build peace and strengthen democracy in Northern Ireland. Prior to coming to UCI, he was awarded a Fulbright scholarship and received a M.A. with Commendation in Legislative Studies from Queen’s University, Belfast, Northern Ireland. As part of this degree, Kaplan-Kelly worked for the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Committee for Finance & Personal and wrote a thesis about changing legal discourse in legislatures around the world around the issue of same-sex marriage. He received a B.A from the University of Chicago in Anthropology and in the Law, Letters, and Society program.

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