Producing Political and Legal Knowledge through Cross-Disciplinary Engagements

By Jennifer Curtis

2014 APLA salon at Busboys and Poets. Photo courtesy APLA

APLA hosted its inaugural salon, Producing Political and Legal Knowledge through Cross-Disciplinary Engagements, on December 3, 2014 during the AAA annual meetings in Washington, DC. The event
was held at the community-based café and event space, Busboys & Poets, in the heart of the city. AAA members, scholars from local universities, and area-based governmental employees and applied research practitioners gathered for drinks, appetizers, and a panel presentation exploring how anthropological knowledge is used and understood by those working beyond the confines of the subdiscipline. Former APLA President Susan Hirsch moderated the panel discussion which included Clara Han of Johns Hopkins, Steven Livingston of The George Washington University, and Jon Gould and Helena Silverstein of the National Science Foundation’ (NSF) Law and Social Science Program.Hirsch introduced the panel theme through reflections on her own scholarly and practical work on justice and reconciliation. She has written reflexively about her experiences as a survivor of the 1998 East African embassy bombings, as the widow of a victim of the bombings, and as a witness at the 2001 trial of the alleged bombers. She has also worked with widows of the 2001 World Trade Center victims, sharing her journey through grief and her pursuit of justice.

As directors of the NSF Law and Social Sciences Program, Gould and Silverstein stressed the value of anthropological knowledge for sociolegal scholarship and encouraged anthropologists to apply for funding through the program. Both emphasized the unique contributions of ethnographic knowledge to understandings of the social life of law and on informal law, norms, and customs. Silverstein reminded the audience that NSF directors are happy to offer feedback to applicants as they develop projects and will often read two-page draft descriptions.

Clara Han discusses the value of ethnographic perspectives in understanding the lived experience of health and wellness. Photo courtesy APLA

Livingston picked up the theme that ethnographic knowledge offers unique forms of understanding, encouraging the audience to present their ethnographic findings with confidence. His current research explores the innovative uses of new technology to monitor and document human rights violations—for example, using satellite cameras to identify grave sites, and SIM cards to document the lives of victims without birth certificates. In his work with international regulatory bodies, he has seen a desire among elites to explore technological innovation for its own sake, rather than to meet the actual needs of people in the developing world. Here ethnographic “on the ground” knowledge produced by anthropologists has the potential to steer transnational efforts towards more effective uses of technology.

Han also emphasized the distinctive contributions of ethnography to both medical anthropology and health care reform. Noting that social scientists often aggregate knowledge in search of generalizable concepts, she argued for ethnographic specificity as a different mode of knowledge production. Ethnographic knowledge, with its depth and duration, can provide a different path to social scientific theory, allowing scholars and practitioners to identify concepts that “migrate”—that is, are explanatory in other contexts. The perspective from which anthropologists approach knowledge makes processes and causes visible that broad aggregation cannot. As a physician and anthropologist, Professor Han conducts fieldwork in Santiago, Chile, studying how neoliberal policies of the state and international economic agencies transform and violate everyday life.

A lively audience and panelist discussion followed. In the current environment of funding, publishing, and professional uncertainties, the salon was a heartening reminder of the value of anthropological research.

Please send ideas for future columns to the contributing editors, Leo Coleman at and Allison Fish at

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