By Ilana Gershon
This essay is part of Reflective Conversation: Revisiting and Revitalizing Ethnographies of Legislatures
When I was writing my article, “Studying Cultural Pluralism,” anthropologists had developed a handy succinct critique of many ethnographies of the state published before the 2000s, which they wielded whenever they were in doubt about what to say next—the state is not a monolith. While true, this critique was a bit too facile, and left open the question: how should this realization shape what anthropologists study in the future? My response was to think of the state as interlocking porous social orders, and ask: how does the social order brought forth by legislatures presuppose and entail certain relationships to law? My hope was to be as specific as possible about the tasks of debating and passing laws while representing others’ interests. I also wanted to write a piece useful enough in its analytical framing that it was relevant to more than just the legislature I was thinking about most at the time, the New Zealand parliament. I did not have many ethnographies of legislatures to draw upon, although Emma Crewe generously reminds readers of all the insightful texts that could have helped me if only I had waited a bit longer to write.
Instead, tackling this in the late 2000s, I turned to comparison with courts to see if that contrast could shed light on the contours of the relationships to law that define how people can participate in legislatures. I used the challenge of being a culture-bearer as the lynchpin for the comparison, asking how being a culture-bearer in courts differed from being a culture-bearer in legislatures. Articles always have strictures in their construction, and the limitations often have unpredictable afterlives. I had to ask about a category like being a culture-bearer to write a text that traipsed so broadly across complex and situated legal traditions. And yet, that focus distracts a bit from what I now think of as the more urgent intervention: how is a state constituted out of porous social orders, and what can we learn about this by studying different institutional relations to law? What is remarkable about the generosity of most of these PoLAR Online pieces is how readily these authors forgave me the focus on culture-bearers, and willingly accept the challenge of seeing legislatures as one porous social order among many. Even Insa Koch, who sees my article as flawed on most accounts, understands that the fundamental question at stake is whether the state should be seen as fundamentally cohesive or not—and lands squarely on the side that it should (privileging the effects of power rather than the practice of power).
In other work on porous social orders (for an overview, see Gershon 2019), anthropologists often focus on the ways in which boundaries are constructed allowing knowledge, people, and objects to circulate between social orders appropriately, where what counts as “appropriately” is all too often the grounds for contestation. Cody reminds readers that in legislatures, media plays an outsized role in managing the relations of representation, of shaping how constituents reveal their opinions to their representatives, and how democratic representatives reveal themselves as strategic decision-makers to their publics. This raises all sorts of questions about how publics are constituted as though they are producing actionable opinions—by what techniques and with what contradictions? And conversely, what role do media genres play in producing politicians as types of actors—and at what cost to the legislative work when representatives are compelled by mass publicity to have a very legible and personality-bound message? (Silverstein and Lempert 2012) The negotiations and compromises one makes in legislatures travels unevenly into media circulations, and the distinctions between the media messages and demands of legislative interaction create a unique form of strategic labor, labor that cannot be explained by analyzing the state as all part of one grand social order.
Emma Crewe and William Schumann point out the consequences to the ethnographic project itself that legislatures are such consciously bounded social orders that strictly police who might enter. Both suggest that this policing has given would-be ethnographers serious pause when weighing whether to study legislatures. One needs an in—although both also point out that this is such a porous institution in practice that there are many possible routes to access, from internships to perhaps chancing on a legislator who happens to have been an anthropologist previously, or be related to one. Emma Crewe’s experiences, in fact, are a remarkable testament to how behaving thoughtfully and well as an ethnographer can open the way for future researchers. Westminster has been far more receptive to researchers since encountering Crewe’s charm, productive insights, and also her tact, as she reminds readers as a caution that too critical an analytical approach in this ethnographic space can come with a heavy price, even with her situated forms of privilege.
Crewe also points to another aspect of legislatures as porous social orders—they are chockful of rituals that are best analyzed through Handelman’s (2004) view of rituals as autopoetic, instead of the more often taught view of rituals as liminal and carnivalesque spaces. Much of the experience of being a newcomer participating in legislative spaces is learning how to manipulate symbols in sanctioned ways, learning new ways of speaking that signal one’s status to those in the know, learning strategies for discerning and producing persuasive actionable evidence. All contribute to legislatures as sites of autopoetic rituals in which action and order are generative and produced in a separable context, typically set apart from other orders.
Yet as Grabham reminds readers, some of what occurs in legislatures is designed to travel, and in specific instances, this labor is done by legal language technicians. The legislative drafters are caught in the inverse of the lived dilemmas that democratic representatives are. Representatives are openly taken to be strategic actors who represent interests or, as Crewe reminds readers, are expert scrutinizers. They are always openly leaving their imprint on the texts and ideas that flow through them. Drafters, on the other hand, are supposed to be invisible conduits, kept far away from the potential and pitfalls of mass publicity. They are seen as using language in regimented and conventionalized ways to produce predictable interpretations by expert readers. As conduits, they resemble translators, facing many of the same requirements to utter words without authorship or intent, as they take ideas located in one register or language and move them into another (Kunreuther 2020). Here too is another instance of the nuanced workings of how power is articulated that would be rendered invisible or irrelevant by viewing the state as too integrated a whole.
I am writing this in the United States in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, a moment in which many Americans are suddenly paying more attention than ever to their local school boards, state legislatures, and Congress as these bodies make decisions about practices—masking, eviction moratoriums, business openings, vaccinations—that are urgent matters of life and death for many. Legislatures are the social forms many of us have inherited and then reproduced to make major decisions about people’s lives, and never more pressing decisions than now. Yet anthropologists still know so little about this social order functions. Perhaps this will inspire anthropologists to turn their analytical talents to understanding this form of social order that unites the political and legal like no other.
Ilana Gershon is the Ruth N. Halls professor of anthropology at Indiana University, and the incoming president of the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology. She is presently writing a book how working in person during a pandemic sheds light on the ways workplaces function as private governments.
Gershon, Ilana. 2019. “Porous Social Orders.” American Ethnologist 46(4): 404-416.
Handelman, Don. 2004. “Introduction: Why Ritual in its Own Right? How So?” Social Analysis 48(2): 1-32.
Kunreuther, Laura. 2020. “Earwitnesses and Transparent Conduits of Voice: On the Labor of Field Interpreters for UN Missions.” Humanity 11(3): 298-316.
Silverstein, Michael and Lempert, Michael. 2012. Creatures of Politics: Media, Message, and the American Presidency. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.