Spillover: Studying the Trial

Response to Akhila Ananth’s Commentary

Barbara Yngvesson

I appreciate Beth’s invitation to join in this conversation about trials and ethnographic authority in the Political and Legal Anthropology Review. My comments build on Akhila Ananth’s overview of the roundtable discussion of ethnography in courts that was held at U.C. Irvine in February 2009, and the relevance of that discussion to my analysis of complaint hearings held by the clerk of court to screen cases, in Virtuous Citizens, Disruptive Subjects. One issue raised in the overview has to do with the extent to which the ethnographer claims authority in specifying the meaning of a specific case or trial for the “culture” or context out of which the case comes or with regard to which it seems to have meaning. I think Justin Richland’s refusal to claim ethnographic authority-refusal to specify what the transcripts of Hopi trials mean, and lack of commitment to defining the “truth” of a hearing-is certainly an important move, and I like the notion of the trial as a moment in time that allows the ethnographer to look beyond the trial to see what is going on in Hopi (or other) tradition in the moment of the trial. I also think that seeing the purpose of the court at the moment of a trial as creating a story that allows people to move on with their lives is an important insight.

I am not sure about the suggestion that earlier work (or at least my earlier work) considered trials (or judicial law) as moments of truth. This may be because the complaint hearings that I studied were not considered “law” by the court system and certainly were not viewed as involving any kind of truth (I doubt seriously they would have been viewed as manifestations of truth even if they had been understood as taking place “inside” the actual court system). But in any case, the court clerk who held the hearings certainly seemed to understand what he was doing as creating an account of what was going on that would keep people out of the court system and able to proceed with their lives. He also saw himself as a kind of moral arbiter who tried to create order in what many in the court saw as a very chaotic and fluid social situation.

What I found interesting about complaint hearings-and this is related to Justin’s point about the trial as a moment in time that provides insights into a broader arena of social and cultural life-is that to get some sense of what these hearings were about, or of what law “did” in the moment of a hearing-it was important to follow a series of hearings over time and to move away from the courthouse into the communities surrounding it. The complaint hearings I followed over a period of a year or so (and traced in the archives of the clerk’s office) were ongoing stories, the focus of which shifted over time, as different players became involved. So I think the time issue, the notion of stories as unfolding, and of the connection of the stories in court to what is happening “outside” the court at a particular moment is important.

I also think Justin’s observation that the ethnography of law needs to pay more attention to the process by which we have come to believe that trials are important, is very astute. This is reminiscent of Marilyn Strathern’s discussion of the “dazzle effect” of certain events that ethnographers encounter and come to focus on. This is also the case with trials. For example, the participants in complaint hearings saw them as “real” trials and turned to the clerk (who acted as if he were a judge) for some form of vindication or what they might perceive as “justice.” The clerk rarely, if ever, provided a resolution of that kind, but rather a lecture about morality, civil behavior, and how to manage conflict.

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