Studying the Trial

Why study the trial? What is gained or lost when we select particular methods for examining trials? How do the events in a trial connect with wider social or legal issues? 

The November 2008 issue (Volume 31, Issue 2) of the Political and Legal Anthropology Review included three articles that focused on single trials in very different settings:

  • From South Africa: an analysis of the Reeds Murders case in South Africa, a high-profile trial involving four young black male defendants. Author Michal Ran-Rubin uses the trial as a lens through which to study current tensions in South Africa over gender, race, class, and post-apartheid justice, particularly as they play out around the question of crime.
  • From the United States, and El Salvador: a study of a Salvadoran plaintiff’s attempt to hold the Salvadoran military accountable in a U.S. court. Jonah Rubin traces the changes this woman’s narrative undergoes as it is reconfigured for a U.S. jury.
  • From Peru: an examination of another very unusual trial, in which a Peruvian woman successfully seeks redress after a gang rape. Author Laura Bunt analyzes how race, class, and gender dynamics play out in this case.

In the Directions section of the issue, scholars from four different disciplinary backgrounds discussed methodological issues involved in analyzing the trial: Robert Burns (law/philosophy), Marianne Constable (rhetoric), Justin Richland (linguistic anthropology), and Winnifred Sullivan (religious studies/law)


 Here we continue the conversation:

  • Authors Michal Ran-Rubin and Jonah Rubin respond to the interdisciplinary Directions discussion, explaining their approaches to studying the trial.
  • Akhila L. Ananth reports on roundtable discussion on ethnography in courts conducted on February 11, 2009 at the University of California, Irvine. The readings for the roundtable included the Directions section on trials.
    • Susan F. Hirsch’s response to Ananth commentary is available here.
    • Barbara Yngvesson’s response to Ananth is available here.
  • Nahda Shehada, author of “Flexibility versus Rigidity in the Practice of Islamic Family Law” (Volume 32, Issue 1), comments on the challenges of addressing interdisciplinary audiences in studying courts and trials; her work centers on Islamic family law in Gaza.
    • Shehada then joins Mike Fischer in an exchange regarding how to write about law for interdisciplinary audiences.