Introduction Edit

The Association for Political and Legal Anthropology is a section of the American Anthropological Association. According to the APLA's website, their purpose is to advance the study of political and legal processes and to encourage the communication of the results of these studies to the academic community. The members of APLA share interests in issues of contemporary importance in the fields of political and legal anthropology, including, nationalism, citizenship, political and legal process, the state, civil society, colonialism and post-colonial public spheres, multiculturalism, globalism, immigration, refugees, and media politics. The APLA is involved in the publication of PoLAR: The Political and Legal Anthropology Review, the publication of a monthly APLA column in the Anthropology News, the organization of panels, workshops, and lectures at the American Anthropological Association meetings, and lastly they are involved in the sponsorship of the APLA annual student paper prize.

Board of DirectorsEdit

The Association for Political and Legal Anthropology has an elected president, president-elect, treasurer, secretary, and four elected members of the board of directors. All elected officers serve two year terms that begin at the close of the annual American Antropological Association meeting in the year of their election. The president works with the board of directors to appoint a program coordinator, an editor of the APLA journal, a communications liaison, a section editor for the Anthropology Newsletter, and a student representative. All of these individuals constitute a the board of directors and are entitled to one vote each.

The board of directors establishes membership dues and also determines voting requirements on all society matters. They participate in publishing and program activities, appoint editors, committees and agents, and also set publication and program policies. According to the APLA's website, membership in the APLA is open to any member of the American Anthropological Association who is in good standing, supports the APLA's purposes and pays the APLA membership dues.

The President is the presiding officer of the association, he/she is the APLA's first representative when the association is entitled to representation elsewhere. The President-elect will assume the duties of the President in the event of the Presidents absence, and will also succeed to the office of President at the expiration of their term as President-elect. The Treasurer is in charge of the financial records of the APLA and is required to submit a draft budget to the Board of Directors for approval. The Secretary is responsible for taking minutes at the Board of Directors meetings and annual business meetings, he/she also serves as the membership coordinator and is responsible for membership outreach activities, recruitment, and retention.

The Board of Directors is required to meet at least once annually, during the time of the annual American Anthropological Association meeting. The President or majority vote of the Board of Directors can determine if additional meetings will occur. During the annual meeting, the Board of Directors is required to report its activities to members and to the Board of Directors of the American Anthropological Association, these reports include information from the Treasurer, editors of publications, committees, and other individuals who are representing the APLA.

Current Board of Directors Edit

  • President: Bill Maurer, Department of Anthropology, University of California- Irvine
  • President-elect: Susan Hirsch, Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University
  • Treasurer: Kate Sullivan, Department of Anthropology, California State University- Los Angeles
  • Secretary: Madelaine Adelman, School of Justice and Social Inquiry, Arizon State University
  • Officer: Kimberley Coles, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Redlands
  • Officer: Robert Hayden, Department of Anthropology, University of Pittsburgh
  • Officer: Sally Engle Merry, Department of Anthropology, New York University
  • Officer: Ilana Gershon, Department of Communication and Culture, Indiana University
  • Program Coordinator: Christopher Timura and Susan Bibler Coutin, University of California- Irvine
  • Editor of PoLAR: Elizabeth Mertz, University of Wisconsin
  • Communications Liaison: Kathryn Henne, University of California- Irvine
  • Anthropology News Editors: Noelle Mole, Princeton University and Mona Bhan, DePauw University
  • Student Representative: Andrea Ballestero, University of California- Irvine
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    President Bill Maurer

History of Political AnthropologyEdit

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the intellectual and methodological roots of political anthropology can be traced to Montesquieu and Alexis de Tocqueville; these individuals viewed politics and governance as cultural constructs. Elizabeth Colson, Edmund R. Leach, and Michael G. Smith can be credited with significantly participating in the emergence of modern political anthropology. In 1940 Colson published African Political Systems, a book edited by Meyer Fortes and Edward Evans-Pritchard. Leach's Political Systems of Highland Burma (1954) and Smith's Government in Zazzau (1960) were landmark studies that contributed to more refined conceptual approaches of poltical anthropology studies. Max Gluckman contributed to the field of political anthropology through his focus on the role of conflict, which explained political change, and introduced an analysis of the complex state-society relations in a new age of globalization.

Throughout the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, a central concern within political anthropology were problems with legitimacy. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, this concern can be seen in David Kertzer's Ritual, Politics, and Power (1988), where he analyzes the role of ritual in maintaining and undermining regimes. The political role of myths, symbols, and rhetorical strategies were also a central focus. Myron J. Aronoff's The Frailty of Authority (1986) dealt with the attempts to transform power into authority and to challenge the legitimacy of established authority in a variety of cultural contexts.

Contemporary political anthropologists have moved away from an emphasis on cohesion and consensus and have tended to focus more on political and cultural contestation. According to Myron J. Aronoff, analyses of traditional fieldwork, the concept of culture, and theoretical influences from feminist, postmodern, critical legal, and cultural studies have had an impact on the development of the field of political anthropology.

History of Legal Anthropology Edit

Sir Henry Maine is acknowledged as being the founding ancestor of legal anthropology. In 1861 Maine published Ancient Law, where he cataloged diverse and numerous legal traditions. Maine also introduced a theory of the development of law within an evolutionary framework. Maine placed human societies on a chart of human development and made a distinction between these societies by determining how legal rights and responsibilities rested on social status, and distinguished between the societies that used contractual agreements among individuals.

Modern legal anthropology is thought to have begun with Bronislaw Malinowski and his monograph on Trobriand society, Crime and the Savage Society (1926). Malinowski criticized Maine's evolutionary scheme; he felt that it misunderstood the nature of governance and social control in "primitive" societies. He proposed an ethnographic approach to the study of legal issues, and called for extended fieldwork in order to "study by direct observation the rules of custom as they function in actual life" (Malinowski 1926).

During the 1950s and 1960s legal anthropology was concerned with law as an aspect of social control, and it saw legal procedures as the means of enforcing social rules. During this time a critical debate over the relationship between legal and anthropological methods emerged. This debate was particularly centered on the question of whether legal anthropologists should apply Anglo-American legal categories to the study of non-Western societies. Max Gluckman and Paul Bohannan were central figures in this debate. Bohannan felt that the use of universal legal categories would serve as a barrier to understanding and representing another culture and fought for the liberal use of native legal terms. Gluckman disagreed and felt that Bohannan's approach was overly cautious and that it would also be a barrier to comparative analysis.

The debate during the 1970s centered around whether the focus of legal anthropology should be on rules or processes. Many anthropologists, like Comaroff and Simon (1981), argued for a study of the process by which disputes are resolved. In the 1980s a discourse and postmodern critique emerged and questioned the traditional categories of legal anthropologists. Geertz challenged the categories of "law" and "fact" and had concerns about the ability of anthropologists and legal thinkers to combine their approaches. A shift toward the study of the United States was introduced in the 1980s and early 1990s. During the late 1990s legal anthropologists seemed to have different ideas about where the concentration of legal anthropology should be. Some legal anthropologists were calling for attention to the tools of linguistics in legal process (Mertz 1992), others were looking for a revival of interdisciplinary scholarship (Riles 1994), and others were interested in exploring legal consciousness and the way it illuminates culture (Just 1992).

Board Members Research Edit

President Bill Maurer is currently a professor at the University of California Irvine. He is a cultural anthropologist and conducts research on law, property, money and finance, and particularly new and experimental financial and currency forms and their legal implications. His first project was an ethnographic and historical account of the rise of the British Virgin Islands as an important offshore financial services center (University of California Irvine Department of Anthropology Website). Maurer's second major project looked at alternatives to financial globalization that re-write the cultural scripts of finance. Maurer's third project was on efforts to regulate offshore finance using "soft law" rather than sanction (University of California Irvine Department of Anthropology Website). He is interested in the emergence of new forms of governance based on peer-pressure and peer-review. Currently he is researching the shifting regulatory landscape in the offshore Caribbean; innovations in Native American banking with Justin B. Richland, UC Irvine; and the cultural and legal implications of new forms of electronic money and payment systems with Scott Mainwaring, Intel Research (University of California Irvine Department of Anthropology Website). Maurer has written on the anthropology of money, finance, and property for many journals, including, Cultural Anthropology, American Ethnologist, American Anthropologist, Annual Reviews in Anthropology, Environment and Planning, and Comparative Studies in Society and History. Maurer has also published a few books, some of which include, Recharting the Caribbean: Land, Law and Citizenship in the British Virgin Islands (1997), Pious Property: Islamic Mortgages in the United States (2006), and Mutual Life, Limited: Islamic Banking, Alternative Currencies, Lateral Reason (2005) (University of California Irvine Department of Anthropology Website).

President-elect Susan Hirsch

President-elect Susan Hirsch is a cultural anthropologist and is currently a professor at George Mason University. Her training in legal anthropology led her to research on conflict and culture, Islam, gender relations, and the legal systems of East Africa. A few of her publications include an ethnographic analysis of how gender relations are negotiated through marital disputes heard in Kenyan Islamic courts; Pronouncing and Persevering: Gender and the Discourses of Disputing in an African Islamic Court (George Mason University Department of Anthropology Website). Hirsch has also published, Contested States: Law, Hegemony, and Resistance (1994). Her latest book is a refelxive ethnography of her experiences of the 1998 East African Embassy bombings and the subsequent trial of four defendants; (George Mason University Department of Anthropology Website)

Treasurer Kate Sullivan is a professor at California State University Los Angeles. Much of her research investigates social and discursive relations of power in transnational public forums that focuses on the development and governance of marine resources. She is interested in the roles of mass media and environmental relations in the context of globalizing economic and cultural forces ( Cal State Los Angeles Department of Anthropology Website). Sullivan conducts her ethnographic fieldwork in British Columbia, Canada, Washington State, and Santiago and X Region de Los Lagos, Chile. She has a book in progress on her dissertation that explores the public conflicts that have arisen over the expansion of industrialized salmon farming along the Pacific Rim of the Americas. She examines the strategies deployed by salmon fishing industry managers, industry workers, competing industries, local communities, environmental NGOs, First Nations, news reporters, and government bureaucrats as they engage with each other over how the salmon farming industry will be developed in each of their regions ( Cal State Los Angeles Department of Anthropology Website).

Publications Edit

Political and Legal Anthropology Review (PoLAR) Edit


PoLAR is devoted to the anthropology of law and politics. They publish work that is distinguished by its definition of problems, ethnographic orientation, and theoretical outlook. PoLAR is indexed in Anthropology Index, Communications Abstracts, Index to Periodical Articles related to Law, and the International Bibliography of the Social Sciences. It is also under consideration for indexing by Oxford University Press's Refugee Survey Quarterly, Sage's Criminal Justice Abstracts, and Sage's Urban Studies Abstracts. PoLAR can be found in full text online at two of the most important legal data bases, Westlaw and Hein OnLine.

The current editor of PoLAR is Elizabeth Mertz from the University of Wisconsin. The book review editor is Professor Amy Stambach from the University of Wisconsin Madison. The managing editor is April Faith-Slaker from Northwestern University.

On the PoLAR website a link is provided to their online only "spillover" conversations. This section was created in 2008; it provides original material from individuals that is connected to topics discussed in PoLAR issues. Currently there is only one "spillover" section available titled, Studying the Trial. Coming soon is a "spillover" section titled, The New Anthropology of Crime.

The section Studying the Trial asks, why study the trial?, what is lost or gained when we select particular methods for examining trials?, and how do events in a trial connect with wider social or legal issues? It looks at three articles that were included in the November 2008 PoLAR issue, each of these articles focused on single trials in different settings. The first takes place in South Africa where the author Michal Ran-Rubin examines the Reeds murder case; this was a high profile trial involving four young black male defendants. Rubin uses this trial to study current tensions in South Africa over race, gender, class, and post-apartheid justice, particularly as they play out around the question of crime. The second article is a study of a Salvadoran plantiff's attempt to hold the Salvadoran military accountable in a United States court. Jonah Rubin traces the changes this womans narrative undergoes as it is reconfigured for a United States jury. The last article is an examination of an unusual trial of a Peruvian woman who successfully seeks redress after a gang rape.The author Laura Bunt analyzes how race, class, and gender dynamics play out in this case. There is a "directions" section after the articles in PoLAR where scholars discussed methodological issues involved in analyzing the trial, and this discussion is continued online in the "spillover" section.

The PoLAR website also provides a section with syllabi and bibliographies that relate to the topics in the "spillover" section. Currently, the only information available in the syllabi and bibliography section is information on general political and legal anthropology, teachings about trials, and anthropology of crime.

Column in Anthropology News Edit

Anthropology News is the official newspaper of the American Anthropological Association. It is published monthly, except for the months of June, July, and August. The APLA produces a column each month for Anthropology News. Currently the contributing editors to Anthropology News are, Noelle Mole and Mona Bhan.

The APLA at the Annual AAA Meetings Edit

At the American Anthropological Association annual meetings, the APLA sponsors panels, workshops, and an invited lecture. During the 2008 annual meeting the APLA hosted three panels, the first was, Political Parties and Subjectivity in Africa, the second was, Critical Ethnographic Perspectives on the War in Iraq, and the last was, Liberal Religiosities.

The APLA also organizes research workshops that allows graduate students to share their work and receive feedback from leading faculty members from around the country. These workshops are also an opportunity for students to network and get to know the work of peers in other universities. In order to submit their work, students are required to be an APLA member, and they also need to produce a two page summary of their research project where they discuss obstacles, challenges, or difficulties they are having at methodological, ethnographic, or theoretical levels.

APLA Annual Student Paper Prize Edit

The APLA Board of Directors asks individuals who are students in degree granting programs, at the time of the submission of their paper, to send papers between 5,000-7,500 words, that center on the analysis of political and legal institutions and processes. The APLA states that topics may include, the state, citizenship, civil society, colonialism and post-colonial spheres, nationalism, cultural politics, multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, globalization, immigration and refugees, resistance, and communicative media. The APLA Board encourages submissions that expand the view of political and legal anthropology and challenges people to think in new ways about law, politics, and power.

The student winner is awarded a cash prize of $350.00 plus travel expenses of up to $650.00 if they decide to attend the annual American Anthropological Association meeting to receive their prize in person. The prize winner is also announced in Anthropology News, and the winning paper will be published in PoLAR.

Some past winners include:

-2008: Karine Vanthuyne "Becoming Maya? The Politics and Pragmatics of 'Being Indigenous' in Post-Genocide Guatemala."

-2006: Tomi Castle "Sexual Citizenship: Articulating Citizenship, Identity, and the Pursuit of the Good Life in Urban Brazil."

-2006: Amy Porter "Fleeting Dreams and Flowing Goods: Citizenship and Consumption in Havana Cuba."

Bibliography Edit

Books and Articles:

  • Bohannan, Paul

1957 Justice and Judgement Among the Tiv. London: Oxford University Press.

1969 Ethnography and Comparison in Legal Anthropology. In Law in Culture and Society. Chicago: Aldine.

  • Comaroff, John and Simon Roberts

1981 Rules and Processes: The Cultural Logic of Dispute in an African Context. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • Geertz, Clifford

1983 Local Knowledge: Fact and Law in Comparative Perspective. In Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology. New York: Basic Books.

  • Gluckman, Max

1955 The Judicial Process among the Barotose of Northern Rhodesia. Manchester: University of Manchester Press.

1969 Concepts in the Comparative Study of Tribal Law. In Culture and Society. Chicago: Aldine.

  • Just, Peter

1992 History, Power, Ideology, and Culture: Current Directions in the Anthropology of Law. In Law and Society Rev. 373.

  • Maine, Sir Henry

1861 Ancient Law. New York: Duttin, 1960.

  • Malinowski, Bronislaw

1926 Crime and Custom in Savage Society. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

  • Mertz, Elizabeth

1992 Language, Law, and Social Meanings: Linguistic/Anthropological Contributions to the Study of Law. In 26 Law and Society Rev. 413.

  • Riles, Annelise

1994 Representing In-Between Law, Anthropology, and the Rhetoric of Interdisciplinarity. In 1994 University of Illinois Law Rev. 597.


  • American Anthropological Association. January 2009. (accessed April 24, 2009)
  • Aronoff, Myron J. Political Anthropology. November 2008. 839827 (accessed May 2, 2009).