Elif Babül, Mount Holyoke College

It’s been a wonderful experience to partake in this worthy effort to think collectively about the future of the anthropology of law, where we reevaluate some prevalent assumptions about the relationship between law and society that influence the majority of studies coming out of legal anthropology today. Those assumptions concern the discrepancy between universal legal codifications and their local applications, the constitutive power of law over cultures and subjectivities, and the depoliticizing effect of legal frameworks on social wrongs and political collectives.

Discussions about the nature of the relationship between law and society (or law and the everyday) have a long history within anthropology as well as its neighboring field of law and society (or socio-legal) studies (Valverde 2003). I will not go into the details of that history. Notwithstanding the debates over whether the law-society distinction overstates the power of the law, underestimates the plasticity of the doctrine, exaggerates the heterogeneity of the everyday, and overlooks its authoritative bearings, the space in–between those two social fields provided anthropologists with ample opportunity to conduct research. From my own standpoint, I would like comment on two particular topics that come forward in recent anthropological work: The relationship between universal legal frameworks and local contexts and the effect of depoliticization that is often attributed to the employment of universal frameworks in local settings. I will finish with some ideas as to what and where legal anthropology should concentrate its abilities to critically elaborate on some current events and maintain its relevance for the times in which we live.

What is now powerfully established through a plethora of legal anthropological research is that any universalizing concept, such as human rights, good governance, and development, has to go through a series of translations in order to become relevant to the local national context that it is transplanted into. Anthropologists working on local configurations of various universals have adopted this analytic to inquire into the workings of several standardization, regulation, and assessment processes (Ballestero 2014; Brenneis 2004; Englund 2006; Hetherington 2014; Hornberger 2012; Merry 2006; Sarfaty 2012; Tsing 1997). What becomes clear in all of these studies is that as opposed to producing equivalent values through commensuration, translation often generates multiplicity. As an influential exposé of standardization reminds us, standards often times end up frustrating people instead of facilitating social processes (Lampland and Star 2009). In order to cope with this frustration, actors involved in both ends of standardization resort to various ways of compensation and tinkering.

One of the most helpful depictions of this tinkering is the one carried out by Julia Hornberger (2012), who follows how human rights principles are taken up by the police and the public in South Africa. Hornberger maintains that influenced by the local repertoires of morality and relations of power, human rights go through a process of “forgery” or “fakery,” resulting in their transmutation and deformation, which makes them almost unrecognizable.

In my own research, I detail a similar situation of translation, where human rights are taught to various government workers in Turkey, with the aim to transform them into the operatives of an effective, accountable bureaucratic machinery (Babül 2012; 2015). With an urge to manage the radical political connotations of human rights in Turkey, training programs frame them as requirements for professionalism and expertise, to which all government workers should subscribe regardless of their ideological alignment. Although this translation makes human rights relevant for the everyday practices of government workers, this relevance comes at a cost. Endowing the governmental domain with credence and legitimacy, training programs help expand its reach. They help convert “state violence” into “governmental force” by rendering it more calculable, technical, and exacting. As such, most training programs contribute to the transformation of human rights from a means of dissent into a powerful governmental resource.

Although it might be tempting to read these mutations as deviations from the original intent and content of universal human rights, I contend that they should in fact be recognized as integral to the transnational human rights regimes that promote these translations. Going back to my own study, human rights training programs for Turkish government workers are part of a larger bureaucratic reform program that is instigated by Turkey’s accession to the European Union. Although it proves to be particularly useful for convincing Turkish government workers, translation of human rights into markers of good governance actually emanates from the EU’s very own harmonization framework.

The contours of this framework became all the more visible with the 2016 readmission agreement signed between Turkey and the EU, which seeks to stop the flow of (mainly) Syrian refugees into Europe. Despite widespread reports of exploitation, abuse, as well as illegal detention and deportation of asylum seekers in Turkey, the agreement declares Turkey as a “safe third country.” Signed in the midst of an alarming erosion of freedoms, as well as the return of violent securitization processes particularly in the Kurdish regions, the agreement demonstrates the ease with which the EU can overlook its interlocutor’s abusive, authoritarian practices to protect its own interests. Together with the bureaucratization of human rights in Turkey, the readmission agreement compels us to bear in mind that transnational human rights regimes are not only sources of dissemination, but also generators of the disfiguration of human rights.

My second point that follows pertains to the particular kind of politics that transpires from the translation processes in various localities. Although it is often accepted that human rights framework bears a depoliticizing effect, recent anthropological work shows that human rights and law can in fact provide the basis for the formation of the political. Researchers, such as Rita Kesselring (2017), for instance, show that when the political field seems unresponsive, law (both national and international) can be an alternative avenue to bring change. What is more, even when legal avenues fail, new forms of the political can grow out of disappointment with the law. Although these studies successfully refute blanket depoliticization assumptions, they still embrace a particular conceptualization of politics in the progressive, emancipatory shape.

What I want to argue—again, drawing from my own research—is the need to also recognize and attend to other political modalities that may arise as a consequence of local adaptations of universal human rights. These modalities can exhibit a staunch, reactionary conservatism, which might explain the researchers’ unwillingness to engage with them.

When we look at Turkey, despite the training programs’ efforts to frame human rights as technical, administrative matters devoid of controversy, we see that this framing was constantly challenged by the trainees. Socialized to be suspicious towards the politics of human rights, Turkish government workers often disputed the framing of human rights as “above politics.” Even when certain human rights issues were successfully framed as professional matters, this did not prevent fierce disagreements between members of competing professions. Drawing from contending technical rationalities of law, healthcare, and security, judges and prosecutors, doctors, and the police intensely disputed procedural matters such as gynecological examination, hunger strikes, and handcuffing children. The framing of human rights in terms of professionalism and expertise did not preclude “contestation and dissensus,” which are central to Andrew Barry’s (2001) definition of politics. The direction and outcome of those contestations, however, did not necessarily breed a liberal, critical stance. On the contrary, this dissensus often enabled government workers to articulate and clench onto their conservative nationalist worldviews.

This brings me to my final point on what I hope to see in the future of legal anthropology. As we see the rise of conservative, nativist, populist regimes across the world, which secure their hold through states of emergencies, what should be the focus and attitude of legal anthropological research? The last few years were marked with severe events such as the refugee crisis and police shootings, alongside the illegal detention, torture and extrajudicial killings of suspected enemies. In Turkey, a failed coup in last July enabled the government to expand its authoritarian practices. According to latest reports, over 100,000 people were expelled from government work and over 30,000 people were arrested since July with allegations of connection to the coup plotters. 170 news outlets, 15 universities, 1225 organizations, 104 associations, and 35 hospitals were shut down. Four elected representatives of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party were recently arrested. Despite being trained to be critical of law’s power, reach, and effects, in the face of such events, I find myself yearning for the rule of law.

The history of legal anthropology shows that we’ve been very good in paying attention to the ambivalent spaces in between law and lawlessness, legality and extra-legality to show how they’ve been taken up by ordinary people for purposes of everyday political engagement. I applaud and am very inspired by those studies. What I also want to see is a concentrated effort to analyze how similar registries of ambivalence have been the source of conservative, authoritarian practices. There are ample studies of states of emergency and extra judicial forms of power coming out of political anthropology. How can we engage with those studies and contribute to the understanding of the current moment that we live in, specifically from a legal anthropological perspective?


Babül, Elif. “Training Bureaucrats, Practicing for Europe: Negotiating Bureaucratic Authority and Governmental Legitimacy in Turkey.” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 35, no. 1 (2012): 30-52.

Babül, Elif. “The Paradox of Protection: Human Rights, the Masculinist State, and the Moral Economy of Gratitude in Turkey.” American Ethnologist 42, no. 1 (2015): 116-130.

Ballestero, Andrea. “What is in a Percentage? Calculation as the Poetic Translation of Human Rights.” Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies 21, no. 1 (2014): 27-53.

Barry, Andrew. Political Machines: Governing A Technological Society. London & New York: The Athlone Press, 2001.

Brenneis, Don. “A Partial View of Contemporary Anthropology.” American Anthropologist 106, no. 3 (2014):580-588.

Englund, Harri. Prisoners of Freedom: Human Rights and the African Poor. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

Hetherington, Kregg. “Regular Soybeans: Translation and Framing in the Ontological Politics of a Coup.” Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies 21, no. 1 (2014): 55-78.

Hornberger, Julia. Policing and Human Rights: The Meaning of Violence and Justice in the Everyday Policing of Johannesburg. London: Routledge, 2011.

Kesselring, Rita. Bodies of Truth: Law Memory and Emancipation in Post-Apartheid South Africa. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2017.

Lampland, Martha, and Susan Leigh Star. Standards and Their Stories: How Quantifying, Classifying and Formalizing Practices Shape Everyday Life. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009.

Merry, Sally Engle. “Transnational Human Rights and Local Activism: Mapping the Middle.” American Anthropologist 108, no. 1 (2006): 38-51.

Sarfaty, Galit. Values in Translation: Human Rights and the Culture of the World Bank. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt.  “Transitions as Translations.” In Transitions, Environments, Translations. In Cora Kaplan Joan W. Scott, and Debra Keates, eds. New York & London: Routledge, 1997.

Valverde, Mariana. “‘Which Side Are You On?’ Uses of the Everyday in Sociolegal Scholarship.” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 26, no. 1 (2003):86-98.

This contribution is part of PoLAR’s sixth emergent conversation, which is on the future of anthropology of law.