Spillover: Studying the Trial


Akhila L. Ananth

This contribution responds both to the aforementioned article in the Political and Legal Anthropology Review, “Analyzing the Trial: Interdisciplinary Methods,” as well as a roundtable discussion on ethnography in courts conducted on February 11, 2009 at the University of California, Irvine, sponsored by the Center in Law, Society, and Culture and the Department of Anthropology.

The purpose of the roundtable discussion was to understand the theoretical and methodological implications of courtroom ethnography for legal anthropology, looking at Barbara Yngvesson’s Virtuous Citizens, Disruptive Subjects, Susan F. Hirsch’s Pronouncing and Persevering, Justin B. Richland’s “Hopi Sovereignty as Epistemological Limit,” and the PoLAR article “Analyzing the Trial: Interdisciplinary Methods,” among a few other texts. Our discussion focused on the evolution of the ethnography of courts, particularly in terms of the methodological decisions in Richland’s work on trial courts in the Hopi Reservation. The moderator, Susan Coutin, noted that it seemed that Richland was doing something different than Hirsch and Yngvesson in that Richland refused to claim a certain ethnographic authority in his work. In other words, while Hirsch and Yngvesson were more willing to specify what particular cases and courts revealed regarding the cultures and contexts in which they occurred, Richland refrains from doing this, leaving the epistemological and practical questions to his reader. For example, he allows us (the audience) to interpret Hopi trial transcripts, and to interrogate our expectations and perceptions of it.

Is this a new trend in legal anthropology or is this a turn that’s characteristic of linguistic anthropologists? Richland responds that because of his loyalties to pragmatics and semiotics, he is always focused on interrogating the processes of belief-formation. He notes that the trial has been a “seductive” unit of analysis since Llewelyn and Hoebel’s work in the early 20th century-though that fact alone doesn’t imply that the act of a trial has meaning. What Richland argues is that beyond the moment of the trial and regardless of its meaning or lack thereof, there is a process by which we come to believe that trials are important. So the question that Richland asks is not, “What is Hopi tradition?” or “What is the trial?” but “What is Hopi tradition doing in the moment of a trial?” The idea is that law is what it does-whether it accomplishes anything, what purpose it serves, and how social actors perceive it. Christine Hegel, who also attended, comments that the norm in legal anthropology is that the trial is so performative that it is difficult to venture away from it as a locus of research.

In his work, Richland attempts to demonstrate that the trial can be considered a mere moment in time, and we can look around it to understand law as a phenomenon more wholly. Richland goes on to note that judicial law, whether Hopi or Anglo-American, is perceived as assertions of truth, even though “truth” is rarely reconciled in interactions with the law. The main purpose of the court, then, is to create a story that allows people to move on with their lives with some sense of redemption or reconciliation, whether that story existed or not. Christine Hegel comments that the same applies for plaintiffs or defendants in the courtroom who are encouraged to articulate a story of the case that sound true-coherent in structure, but not too rehearsed that it sounds unbelievable. She asks, what is the sound of “truth”? What makes certain stories authentic and coherent?

Richland’s methodology evolves from a lack of commitment to define “truth,” allowing him to establish something in one moment and unravel it in the next. His use of this tactic in his ethnography of Hopi courts demonstrates the ability of legal anthropology to develop as a field. In re-reading the methodological discussion in PoLAR after participating in the roundtable discussion, I realize that Robert Burns, Marianne Constable, and Winnifred Sullivan are engaged in the same task-expanding the methods of jurisprudence and socio-legal theory to answer new questions. In her section, Marianne Constable remains faithful to positivist sources of information, such as written trial texts, but she switches the focus from the words on the page to the silences between those words and the moments of translation. Constable is able to freeze and distort a silence-a moment in time-so we’re not interpreting a normative sequence of events but concocting multiple meanings for a single image or a flicker of thought. I imagine it as a funhouse of interpretation, where an infinite number of warped images are created from a subject in an isolated moment.

The point is that there are always new ways to do ethnographies of courts and that there are well-known scholars now doing just that. As Bill Maurer (also present) and Susan Coutin mentioned in the roundtable discussion, we are trained to claim that we’ve discovered the meaning of a trial in a particular context. Perhaps what we learn from the interactions between critical scholars, such as the contributors to this article in the Political and Legal Anthropology Review, is that there are ways to offer analysis that preserves the integrity of the information bestowed upon us without buying into hegemonic legal ideologies. In the process, these innovative methodological pursuits allow us to advance the field in an academic world as infatuated with “truth” as the legal institutions it critiques.

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