Book Review Editorial: Emerging Themes in Legal and Political Anthropology

By Smoki Musaraj and Matthew Canfield

In 2022, we (Smoki Musaraj and Matt Canfield) took over co-editing the Book Reviews section of PoLAR from Leo Coleman, who served as the Book Reviews editor for the past three years. As co-editors, we have had the privilege of seeing the vitality of the field of political and legal anthropology through the lens of the manuscripts that our colleagues have published.[1]

By its very nature of extended ethnographic research, funding, academic cycle, and publication process, ethnographic works are slow; they cannot respond quickly to current events. Yet they can provide invaluable context and depth of knowledge about contemporary issues through the lens of anthropological theory and thick description of everyday experiences. In this brief editorial, we provide a glimpse into the current field and the range of themes that political and legal anthropologists are working on. While we cannot do justice to the vast literature on these topics, we highlight just some of the important contributions that anthropologists are making to contemporary conversations around key political and legal issues of our time. Here we discuss how legal anthropologists tackle climate change and environmental politics; authoritarian and illiberal democracy; war, violence, and conflict; courts, legal proceedings, and bureaucratic entanglements; and human rights and global activism.

We highlight both recent books reviewed at PoLAR and others that have been recently published and are available for review. This editorial does not therefore aim to be a comprehensive review, but rather offers some key themes of current research in our field.

Climate Change and Environmental Politics

Earlier this summer, when we were finally meeting in person in Lisbon at the Law and Society Association meeting, catastrophic fires were raging in inland Portugal and other parts of Southern Europe. As we were writing this editorial, Pakistan was coping with the aftermath of catastrophic floods that left 1,500 dead and cut off many villages from the rest of the country. Reacting to the devastating proportions of the flood, the Prime Minister of Pakistan called for reparations from northern countries for the effects of climate change in poorer nations, thus drawing attention to the uneven distribution of the burden of climate change on various nations and socio-economic groups (as the issue goes to print, an agreement on such payments was just reached at the climate talks in Egypt). This public attention to the intertwining of natural disasters and climate change with global inequalities echoes themes and concerns that anthropologists have raised for quite some time. In recent years, there have been an abundance of ethnographic works that explore precisely the intersectionality of race, class, and gender with climate change and environmental disasters. A very brief scan of the recent literature suggests that the possibilities of such engagements are many.

A number of recent books highlight the entanglements between capitalism, race, and the environment. For example, in Global Burning (2022), Eve Darian-Smith draws connections between the recent wildfires in the U.S., Brazil, and Australia and the marriage between global capitalism and rising authoritarianism in the respective countries. In a similar vein, in Humanity’s Last Stand (2021), Mark Schuller notes how climate change is fueled by a deadly alliance between global capitalism, xenophobia, and white supremacy. These books are written for a broader audience to make anthropological theories and findings accessible to readers beyond academe.

More ethnographic works explored in depth these themes in a variety of ways. For example, some follow along broader efforts to decolonize anthropology by bringing attention to indigenous communities and knowledges and the enduring legacies of settler colonialism and racial capitalism (Chao 2022; Vaughn 2022). In Making Livable Worlds, for example, Hilda Llorens examines the ways in which slavery, colonialism, and environmental injustice have shaped the worlds of Black Puerto Rican women and how they are creating restorative practices based on their socioeco-logical knowledge. Others hone in on ways that law can be mobilized to combat the effects of climate change as is the case in Ecuador’s lawsuit against Chevron explored by Sawyer (2022). The study draws attention to the limited regulatory power of national governments with respect to making global corporations accountable. Whether a story of success or failure, such focused ethnographies and holistic anthropological analyses are much needed for understanding how local, national, and global legal regimes can be mobilized to combat climate change.

Authoritarianism and Illiberal Democracy

Another set of recent books examine the origins and social and political aspects of the rise of authoritarianism and illiberal democracies in various parts of the world. These also strike us as being extremely timely given the recent electoral wins and failures—from the failed referendum on the extremely progressive draft constitution in Chile, to the election of the far-right politician Giorgia Meloni as Italy’s first woman prime minister. The victories of right-wing populist parties echo other instances of illiberal and authoritarian regimes that have been on the rise throughout the world. What is perhaps most disturbing about this return to power of extreme right parties is that these were political outcomes from democratic elections. Authoritarian regimes and illiberal democracies are the focus of a number of recent ethnographies-from Basil (Junge et al 2021, reviewed in PoLAR) to Turkey (Yonucu 2022) to China (Byler 2021) and the US (Hinton 2021, reviewed in PoLAR). These are a must-read set of books for readers trying to understand the failure of the Chilean draft constitution, the win of the right-wing coalition in Italy, or the enduring appeal of Bolsanaro in Brasil, among other instances of authoritarian politics in other democracies. Because, as Hinton captures well in his book on the rise of the right and of authoritarian political practices in the U.S., “it can happen here.”

While the political histories and cultural context of the different countries surveyed here are quite diverse, some common threads emerge. The subjects of despair, disillusionment, and lack of care are explored as the context from which Brasil’s Bolsanaro (Junge et al. 2021) and corruption in Argentina (Muir 2022) and Indonesia (Tidey 2022) emanate. Muir’s Routine Crisis (2022, reviewed in PoLAR), which received honorable mention of the APLA Book Prize in Critical Anthropology, examines the politics of a middle-class vision of the future that is dominated by a pervasive sense of disillusionment and cynicism towards democracy. Tidey’s Ethics or the Right Things? also encounters disillusionment among the residents of Kupang, Indonesia, whose understanding of corruption differs from that of global good governance discourses and reads as lack of care by government officials. An important thread that runs through this wave of anthropological studies of authoritarianism and illiberal democracies is the role of affect in politics. Yonucu’s (2022) study of contemporary police practices in Turkey, for instance, points to the government’s use of affect -and emotion-generating divisive techniques, inherited from Cold War insurgency practices. The mobilization of affect in politics is not something new, but approaching it through the lens of affect theory, as a number of these contributions do, promises new avenues to examine the role that affect plays in political imagination as well as political mobilization in a time of ascendent right-wing populism.

War, Violence, and Conflict

Anthropologists continue to look at the aftermaths of political violence. As the conflict in Ukraine continues, and as military provocations continue between Taiwan and China, several recent books also shed light on anthropological approaches to war. In Crossing the Line, Amahl Bishara (2022) looks at the experiences of Palestinians across the Green Line-the line that separates the 1948 borders of Israel from the 1967 occupied territories. She writes in vivid detail of the challenges of maintaining identity and solidarity across artificial borders and citizenship regimes developed to maintain control of Palestinians. Others remind us of the consequences of war through studying its aftermaths. Kim Theidon’s Legacies of War (2022) examines the experiences of both children born of rape and their mothers in Columbia and Peru. Irina Carlotta Silber’s After Stories (2022) examines the “1.5 generation” from El Salvador-children who were born amidst violence and migrated to the United States. Leah Zani’s Strike Patterns (2022) examines the experiences and histories of people living along the Lao River and their memory of one of the longest bombing campaigns in U.S. history. These books expose both the slow violence of occupation and the long-term effects of political violence.

Anthropologists also continue to illuminate the effects of extractive economies on local communities ridden by political instability and conflict. This year’s APLA Book Prize in Critical Anthropology was awarded to James H. Smith’s The Eyes of the World: Mining in the Digital Age in the Eastern DR Congo (2022). The book looks at the ways that artisanal miners of minerals that are used for digital devices—themselves violently dispossessed—attempt to make a living for themselves amidst an array of actors and forces that are all attempting to shape the mining of these substances in competing ways. The book also reveals the negative consequences on these artisans’ trade produced by American laws that target resource extraction in conflict-ridden zones. Also writing about The Democratic Republic of Congo, Peer Schouten’s Roadblock Politics (2022) focuses on the economies of roadblocks controlled by local community leaders, rebel forces, and state security actors, all seeking power and control over territory and resources. Schouten demonstrates how this economy, to which both locals and internationals contribute, undermines institution building and fuels the ongoing conflicts in the region. These books continue to highlight the intended and unintended legal and economic effects of international actors in local conflicts, underscoring the value of ethnographic research in understanding local context and complex relationships among various groups.

Ethnography of Courts, Legal Proceedings, and Bureaucratic Engagements

One of the most valuable contributions of legal anthropology to the broader field of sociolegal studies is the innovative methodologies of studying the law and legal practice. A number of recent contributions experiment with methodology as a way to access qualitative data that might not be easily accessible through other research methods. These methodologies range from traditional courtroom ethnography to multi-disciplinary team courtroom ethnography to anthropological readings of legal cases and archives.

Heather R. Hlavka and Sameena Mulla’s book, Bodies of Evidence: Race, Gender, and Science in Sexual Assault Adjudication (2021) is the product of multiple years of team courtroom ethnography in the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. By deploying faculty and student observers in the courtrooms where sexual assault cases are being tried, this all-women team guided by feminist research ethics combined multiple forms of qualitative data-transcripts, field notes, verbal and non-verbal cues, discourse analysis, and interviews. These data show how sexual assault adjudication is shaped by gendered and racialized imaginaries, even as forensic and other scientific evidence is increasingly used in the courts. Similarly, Susane Verhul’s Performing Power (2021, reviewed in PoLAR), pays close attention to the performances by lawyers, defendants, and judges in the courtroom in authoritarian Zimbabwe. Courtroom interactions, for Verhul, are important sites of political contestation. These courtroom ethnographies point to the shortcomings of big-data science, which has come to dominate research in criminology broadly speaking, and of binary thinking about power between different parties involved in the courtroom.

Another method of legal anthropologists studying the law entails an ethnography of legal archives, cases, and rules and regulations. In these works, traditional sources of legal research such as laws, regulations, court cases, legal disputes, and negotiations are approached through an anthropological gaze that examines the meanings and genealogies of particular legal institutions and forms of knowledge grounded in culturally and historically specific traditions. Nada Moumtaz’s God’s Property (2021) provides a fascinating genealogy of the legal institution of the waqf, a type of Islamic charity trust, as it shifts from a notion of property administered by God and the family to a secularized institution that belongs to the private sphere of religious communities. Moumtaz shows how contemporary waqfs are organized and overseen by the logics and laws of modem colonial and postcolonial state bureaucracy. Maya Mikdashi’s Sextarianism: Sovereignty, Secularism, and the State in Lebanon (2022) takes an ethnographic reading of court records on legal cases involving family, marriage, inheritance, and sexuality. Mikdashi shows how sex and sect intersect in the very definition of citizenship in sectarian Lebanon. Following 80 hours of engagements between Native American Tribes and U.S. Federal government authorities, Justin Richland’s Cooperation without Submission (2021) brings attention to the different languages used by the two parties. While the federal government speaks as the supreme legal authority, the Tribes, argues Richland, insist on engaging as equals, as nation-to-nation partners. Richland proposes that the Tribes’ language, which mirrors that used among the Hopi nations negotiating among themselves, represents an Indigenous theory of jurisdiction.

Others have examined international courts. Jonas Bens’ The Sentimental Court (2022) looks at the affective dimensions of the International Criminal Court, drawing on fieldwork both at the Court and in Uganda while the trial of the Lord’s Resistance Army commander Dominic Ongwen was ongoing. Alexander Hinton’s Anthropological Witness (2022) writes about his own experience as an expert witness in the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia based on his encounter with an accused architect of genocide. Through their methodological creativity and long-term ethnography, these texts offer key insights into the more-than-legal cultural and social dynamics through which formally legal sites operate.

Human Rights and Global Activism

In response to enduring inequalities and violence, legal anthropologists have long provided insight into the complicated dynamics of domination and resistance that accompany the spread of human rights claims. While a vibrant debate is now ongoing among international law scholars about the efficacy of human rights, anthropologists have sought to rethink human rights and examine how social movements are engaging with global law. For example, Mark Goodale’s Reinventing Human Rights (2022) intervenes in debates amongst human rights scholars and calls for a fundamental rethinking of human rights from universalism to translocality. Matthew Canfield’s Translating Food Sovereignty (2022) ethnographically examines how the transnational food sovereignty movement has cultivated new social justice claims and practices of translocal translation in relation to changing forms of transnational governance. Kristina Simion’s Rule of Law Intermediaries (2021) examines how the rule of law is brokered internationally through ethnographic fieldwork in Myanmar.

Anthropologists have also traditionally looked at creative modes of activism around the world. New contributions on this subject connect some of the themes discussed above, such as environmental disasters and human rights suppression, to repertoires of contentious politics. These contributions cover a wide range of rights under threat for various social groups as well as a wide range of forms of activism-from protests to legal mobilization, to cultural performances. In Our Fight Has Just Begun (2022), Navajo scholar Cheryl Redhorse Bennet dives into the history and contemporary manifestation of racism and hate crimes against the Navajo peoples in the United States, using historical data, media and government reports, and interviews with survivors of hate crimes. The book also includes recommendations for racial justice. In Citizens Without a City (2022), Jan-Jonathan Bock follows various modalities of protest and legal challenges by local residents to the postdisaster measures implemented by the Italian government to deal with the aftermath of the earthquake in L’ Aquila, Italy. Through a detailed ethnography, the book shows how such post-disaster programs can divide survivors and how forms of protest and resistance by those affected by the disaster do not always succeed. Teresa A. Velasquez’ Pachamama Politics (2022) takes an engaged anthropological approach to anti-mining movements in Ecuador. This activist ethnography captures similar connections between environmental threats and issues of race, gender, and class and highlights the prominent role of new Andean cosmopolitics in Indigenous and environmental rights movements in the region. These books map out the myriad possibilities for organization, protest, and contestation of legal and political systems and norms.

Final Thoughts

Though we could not do justice to the many books published in political and legal anthropology, we have aimed to highlight a few key themes here and the way that anthropologists are contributing to current political and legal debates. Political and legal anthropology remains a vast field with fuzzy boundaries; we, therefore, encourage authors to contact and notify us of their recently published books. We also continue to encourage readers of PoLAR to review books listed on our website, as well as those that we are unaware of. We accept reviews of monographs as well as book review essays that generate conversation among books on common themes. In the broader spirit of encouraging younger scholars, we specifically invite established senior scholars to review first-time authored books, many of which are mentioned in this editorial. Finally, we also encourage scholars to engage with PoLAR by reviewing books published outside of the United States and in languages other than English, of which we are often unaware. We believe writing book reviews is a vital service to our field and extend our gratitude to all those who have recently reviewed books for PoLAR.


[1] This essay appears in the November 2022 issue of PoLAR:  Political and Legal Anthropology Review 45(2): 304-310.

Works Cited

Bennett, Cheryl Redhorse. 2022. Our Fight has Just Begun: Hate Crimes and Justice in Native America. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press.

Bens, Jonas. 2022. The Sentimental Court: The Affective Life of International Criminal Justice. Cambridge University Press.

Bishara, Amahl. 2022. Crossing a Line: Laws, Violence, and Roadblocks to Palestinian Political Expression. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Bock, Jan-Jonathan. 2022. Citizens without a City: Destruction and Despair after the L’ Aquila Earthquake. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Byler, Darren. 2021. Terror Capitalism: Uyger Dispossession and Masculinity in a Chinese City. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Canfield, Matthew. 2022. Translating Food Sovereignty: Cultivating Justice in an Age of Transnational Governance. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Chao, Sophie. 2022. In the Shadow of the Palms: More-than-Human Becomings in West Papua. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Darian-Smith, Eve. 2022. Global Burning: Rising Antidemocracy and the Climate Crisis. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Goodale, Mark. 2022. Reinventing Human Rights. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Hinton, Alexander Laban. 2021. It Can Happen Here: White Power and the Rising Threat of Genocide in the US. New York: New York University Press.

Hinton, Alexander Laban. 2022. Anthropological Witness: Lessons from the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Hlavka, Heather R., and Sameena Mulla. 2021. Bodies in Evidence: Race, Gender, and Science in Sexual Assault Adjudication. New York, NY: New York University Press.

Junge, Benjamin, Sean T. Mitchell, Alvaro Jarrin and Lucia Cantero, eds. 2021. Precarious Democracy: Ethnographies of Hope, Despair, and Resistance in Brazil. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Llorens, Hilda. 2021. Making Livable Worlds: Afro-Puerto Rican Women Building Environmental Justice. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.

Marcatelli, Michela. 2021. Naturalizing Inequality: Water, Race, and Biopolitics in South Africa. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press.

Mikdashi, Maya. 2022. Sextarianism: Sovereignty, Secularism, and the State in Lebanon. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Moumtaz, Nada. 2021. God’s Property: Islam, Charity, and the Modem State. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

Muir, Sarah. 2021. Routine Crisis: An Ethnography of Disillusion. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Richland, Justin. 2021. Cooperation Without Submission: Indigenous Jurisdictions in Native Nation-US Engagements. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Schouten, Peer. 2022. Roadblock Politics: The Origins of Violence in Central Africa. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Schuller, Mark. 2021. Humanity’s Last Stand: Confronting Global Catastrophe. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Silber, Irina Carlota. 2022. After Stories: Transnational Intimacies of Postwar El Salvador. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Simion, Kristina. 2021. Rule of Law Intermediaries: Brokering Influence in Myanmar. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, James H. 2022. The Eyes of the World: Mining the Digital Age in the Eastern DR Congo. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Theidon, Kimberly. 2022. Legacies of War: Violence, Ecologies, and Kin. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Tidey, Sylvia. 2022. Ethics or the Right Thing?: Corruption, Care, and Family in an Age of Good Governance. Chicago: Hau Books.

Vaughn, Sarah E. 2022. Engineering Vulnerability: In Pursuit of Climate Adaptation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Velasquez, Teresa A. 2022. Pachamama Politics: Campesino Water Defenders and the AntiMining Movement in Andean Ecuador. Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press.

Verheul, Susanne. 2021. Performing Power in Zimbabwe: Politics, Law, and the Courts Since 2000. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Yonucu, Deniz. 2022. Police, Provocation, Politics: Counterinsurgency in Istanbul. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Zani, Leah. 2022. Strike Patterns: Notes from Postwar Laos. Stanford: Stanford University Press.


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