Ethnography of the Global


Center for the Study of Law and Society
Miniseries in Empirical Research Methods
Friday, February 1, 2013, 9 a.m. – 12 noon. Lunch to follow.
Philip Selznick Seminar Room, 2240 Piedmont Avenue, Berkeley



Sally Engle Merry
Professor of Anthropology
New York University


As social scientists tackle the challenge of understanding the nature of globalization and sites of global social life, they often turn to large, quantitative studies. However, an anthropological focus on the micro social situation understood in a larger social context, offers an important way of understanding the global. While ethnography is resolutely focused on small sites of social interaction, there are ways to apply this methodology to phenomena that circulate transnationally. Ethnography can also illuminate social scenes that exist only in international space or that are deeply local but embedded in national and transnational systems of meaning and practice. Wherever it is practiced, ethnography focuses on forms of discourse and meaning, every day practices and habits, and systems of actors, networks and institutional frameworks.

There are at least four ways of applying this approach at the global level. The first is multi-sited ethnography, which traces how ideas, people, money, and things circulate. The second is deterritorialized ethnography, which uses the ethnographic method to study spaces that are not grounded in any particular place but exist internationally, such as United Nations conferences. The third is local but contextualized ethnography that focuses on a local space embedded in national and international social networks and systems of meaning. Here, key questions concern translation and vernacularization of ideas and frameworks among levels from local to global. The fourth is the analysis of commensuration: the social process through which different social situations are rendered comparable and therefore countable. This process requires stripping people and events of context and seeking points of similarity in order to be able to compare and measure different situations and actions.

The workshop will explore these processes and methods of carrying them out using empirical data from my research on gender violence and human rights that examines global and local sites as well as the process of vernacularization. It will also draw on my current research on the forms of knowledge production required in order to develop global indicators and measurements such as data on the frequency of violence against women around the world. Each approach offers important insights into understanding the global as well as analytic problems of how different things in different places can be compared.

Suggested Further Reading:

Sally Engle Merry. 2006. Human Rights and Gender Violence: Translating International Law into Local Justice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sally Engle Merry. 2006. “Transnational Human Rights and Local Activism: Mapping the Middle.” American Anthropologist 108 (1): 38-51.

Sally Engle Merry. 2011. “Measuring the World: Indicators, Human Rights, and Global Governance.” Corporate Lives: New Perspectives on the Social Life of the Corporate Form. Damani Partridge, Marina Welker, Rebecca Hardin, eds. Wenner-Gren Symposium Series. Current Anthropology, Vol. 52, Supplementary Issue 3: S83-S95.

George Marcus. 1998. “Ethnography in/of the World System: The Emergence of Multi-Sited Ethnography.” Ethnography through Thick and Thin. Princeton University Press, p. 79-104.

Workshop Materials: