Above, Below and In-Between: Challenges to Scaling and Translating Universalist Projects within Local Contexts

In a post WWII order, a series of transnational institutions (UN, WTO, ISO) and NGOs have  emerged with the aim of developing, administering, and enforcing international standards with the pretext of establishing a universal moral good. Such standards are often disseminated through legal and bureaucratic means (Riles 2006). The prevalence of such discourse creates a sense that global populations and economies are more integrated than ever before. Such projects are often meant to promote inclusiveness, equality, and more just treatment among humans, animals, commodities, and the environment. However such institutions often face challenges when implementing programs targeted at subsuming social and material life under their universalist visions (Merry 2016, Goodale and Merry 2007, Mutua 2001).

This panel investigates the processes by which these discourses and/or frameworks are understood and negotiated. How do communities understand these universalist projects and make meaning out of them? What difficulties do people face when translating such concepts into reality? At what points do these projects lose their grip? How can projects of universality actually commit violence, erasure or exclusion? How do projects of universality with different historical origins come together or conflict?

We invite proposals that examine a wide range of universalist projects such as human rights, environmental protection, and international trade. We are also interested in discussing the various methodological strategies and tools that anthropologists have used in examining these questions at different scales and contexts. This includes papers that approach these questions from “above” and/or “below” or in between in order to discuss how our ethnographic positionings both limit and shape our abilities to theorize the translation of universalist projects.

If interested, please email proposed abstracts of no more than 250 words to Amarilys Estrella (ae697@nyu.edu) and Schuyler Marquez (stm313@nyu.edu) by end of the day Friday, April 13.

Works cited*

Riles, Annelise. 2006. Documents: Artifacts of Modern Knowledge. Ann Arbor: Univ of Michigan Press.
Merry, Sally Engle. 2016. The Seductions of Quantification: Measuring Human Rights, Gender Violence, and Sex Trafficking
Mutua, Makau. 2001. Human Rights as a Metaphor: Savages, Victims, and Saviors?Goodale, Mark and Sally Engle Merry. 2007. The Practice of Human Rights: Tracking Law between the Global and the Local