Ph.D. 1978, Brandeis, M.A. 1967, Yale, B.A. 1966, Wellesley;
Office Address: Rufus D. Smith Hall 25 Waverly Place New York, NY 10003
Areas of Research/Interest
Anthropology of law; human rights; colonialism; transnationalism; gender and race; US, Pacific and Asia/Pacific region, forms of governance and audit culture, governmentality.
1981 Urban Danger: Life in a Neighborhood of Strangers. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
1990 Getting Justice and Getting Even: Legal Consciousness Among Working-Class Americans. Chicago, IL:
University of Chicago Press. Chinese edition, Peking Univ. Press
1993 The Possibility of Popular Justice: A Case Study of American Community Mediation. Co-edited with Neal Milner.
Ann Arbor, MI: Univ. of Michigan Press.
2000 Colonizing Hawai'i: The Cultural Power of Law. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Awarded the 2002 James Willard Hurst Prize in Legal History of the Law and Society Association.
2004 Law and Empire in the Pacific: Hawai'i and Fiji. Co-edited with Donald Brenneis.
School of American Research Press, Santa Fe, NM
2006 Human Rights and Gender Violence: Translating International Law into Local Justice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
2010. Winner of the J.I. Staley Prize of the School for Advanced Research.
2008 Oxford University Press of India edition.
2010 Spanish language edition, Universidad de los Andes, Bogota, Colombia.
2007 The Practice of Human Rights: Tracking Law Between the Global and the Local. Co-edited with Mark Goodale. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
2009 Gender Violence: A Cultural Introduction. London: Blackwell.
2001 "Rights, Religion, and Community: Approaches to Violence Against Women in the Context of Globalization." Law and Society Review 35: 39-88.
2001 "Spatial Governmentality and the New Urban Social Order: Controlling Gender Violence through Law." American Anthropologist 103: 16-30.
2003 “Kapi‘olani at the Brink: Dilemmas of Historical Ethnography in Nineteenth-Century Hawai‘i.” American Ethnologist 30:1: 44-61.
2003 “Rights Talk and the Experience of Law: Implementing Women’s Human Rights to Protection from Violence.” Human Rights Quarterly 25:2: 343-381.
2005 "The Female Inheritance Movement in Hong Kong: Theorizing the Local/Global Interface." Co-authored with Rachel Stern. Current Anthropology 46 (3): 387-409.
2006. “ Transnational Human Rights and Local Activism: Mapping the Middle” American Anthropologist 108 (1): 38-51.
2009. Vernacularization in Action: Using Global Women's Human Rights Locally. Special Issue of Global Networks 9 (4), co- edited with Peggy Levitt.
2009. “Vernacularization on the ground: Local uses of global women’s rights in Peru, China, India and the United States.” Global Networks 9 (4): 441–461. co-authored with Peggy Levitt.
2010. “Law from Below: Women’s Human Rights and Social Movements in New York City.” Co-authored with Peggy Levitt, Mihaela Serban Rosen, and Diana H. Yoon. Law and Society Review 44 (1):101- 128.
2010. “Engaged Anthropology: Diversity and Dilemmas.” Co-authored with Setha Low. In Current Anthropology, special issue on Engaged Anthropology: Diversity and Dilemmas. Wenner Gren Symposium Supplement 2. co-edited with Setha Low. Vol. 51, Number S2: 1-24.
2011. “Making Women’s Human Rights in the Vernacular: Navigating the Culture/Rights Divide,” co-authored with Peggy Levitt. Pp. 81-100 in Gender and Culture at the Limit of Rights, edited by Dorothy Hodgson. Series: Studies in Human Rights. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.
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.
2011. “The Curious Resistance to seeing Domestic Violence as a Human Rights Violation in the USA” co-authored with Jessica Shimmin. Pp. 113- 131 in Human Rights in the United States: Beyond Exceptionalism. Kathryn Libal and Shereen Hertel, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.
2011. “Sex Trafficking and Global Governance in the Context of Pacific Mobility.” Law, Text, Culture 15: 187-208, chapter 10.
2012. “Indicators as a Technology of Global Governance.” Co-authored with Kevin Davis and Benedict Kingsbury. Law and Society Review 46 (1): 71 – 104.
2012. “What is Legal Culture? An Anthropological Perspective.” Journal of Comparative Law 5(2): 40-58.
2012. Anthropology and Law” in The Sage Handbook of Social Anthropology, Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and Commonwealth. Richard Fardon, Olivia Harris, Mark Nuttall, Trevor Marchand, Chris Shore, and Richard A. Wilson, eds. Volume 1, pp. 105-120. London: Sage Publications.
2012. “Human Rights Monitoring and the Question of Indicators.” In Human Rights at the Crossroads. Mark Goodale, ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Updated April 2015
Sally Engle Merry is Silver Professor and Professor of Anthropology at New York University. She is also Associate Department Chair, Faculty Co-director of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at the New York University School of Law, and past president of the American Ethnological Society. She is the author or editor of fifteen books and special journal issues and over one hundred and twenty-five articles and reviews. Her recent books include Colonizing Hawai‘i (Princeton, 2000), Human Rights and Gender Violence (Chicago, 2006), Gender Violence: A Cultural Perspective (Blackwells, 2009) and The Practice of Human Rights, (co-edited with Mark Goodale; Cambridge, 2007). She received the Hurst Prize for Colonizing Hawai‘i in 2002, the Kalven Prize for scholarly contributions to sociolegal scholarship in 2007, and the J.I. Staley Prize for Human Rights and Gender Violence in 2010. In 2013 she received an honorary degree from McGill School of Law and was the focus of an Author Colloquium at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research (ZIF) at the University of Bielefeld, Germany. She is an adjunct professor at Australian National University. Her forthcoming book, The Seductions of Quantification: Measuring Human Rights, Violence against Women, and Sex Trafficking (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) examines indicators as a technology of knowledge used for human rights monitoring and global governance.
Updated February 2013
My current research interests focus on the impact of technologies of measurement and counting on human rights law and global governance. This is a technology fundamental to new forms of governance as well as activism and advocacy. I am completing a book, tentatively titled The Seductions of Quantification: Human Rights and the Rise of Indicator Culture, that explores the way quantitative knowledge is produced and used in the context of global governance. I focus in particular on areas of soft law, where compliance depends on monitoring behavior with reference to a set of standards. Monitoring requires gathering information about a country’s or an organization’s performance which is then assessed against broad standards or laws such as human rights conventions. My focus is human rights law, particularly areas that focus on gender such as violence against women and sex trafficking. This NSF-funded project focuses on the construction and data collection of three global indicators: human rights indicators for the committees monitoring human rights treaties, violence against women surveys, and the US State Department Trafficking in Persons report that ranks countries in terms of their compliance with anti-trafficking activities. I have taken an ethnographic and genealogical approach to studying each of these initiatives by attending international meetings, interviewing those who create and use them, and tracking their historical evolution through documents of conferences and programs.
The core concern of the project is the relationship between the technology of knowledge production and power. As a form of power, technologies of quantification typically fly under the radar. I am investigating the techniques by which information is gathered and analyzed as well as who determines relevant categories, who collects the data, and who disseminates it. Is this a technology of experts in rich countries which serves to govern the rest? Do the subjects of surveillance have a voice? Is the same technology used by radical activists seeking to destabilize the system as by governing elites? Since organizations and groups seeking to develop this kind of knowledge differ significantly in resources and expertise, their ability to generate and use such knowledge is quite different.
Measurement and ranking systems typically incorporate theories about social change that are embedded in their design but not explicitly described. The US State Department trafficking indicators, for example, assume that prosecuting traffickers is the key strategy for eliminating trafficking, although it is only one of several standards that they articulate. Since this form of knowledge has a direct impact on the way publics understand the world as well as how policy-makers and others with governmental power make decisions, it represents a subtle form of power. Consequently, it is critical to examine the social, political, and economic context of knowledge production.
My project on human rights indicators grows out of my earlier research on women’s human rights and the process of vernacularization. I am taking a governmentality perspective on the rise of indicators in the area of global governance, asking what kinds of knowledge they produce, how they affect decisions, and how the use of this kind of knowledge changes the power dynamics of decision-making. I hypothesize that the use of indicators as a form of knowledge places power in the hands of technical experts, who often come from the global North. This is a new development in the human rights field, but it follows a vast expansion of this form of knowledge in economic development and health.
The project includes two in-depth ethnographic studies done by Anthropology graduate students. In Tanzania, Summer Wood examined the processes of data collection and pilot testing of an indicator for child rights designed to assist the committee monitoring the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. In India, Vibhuti Ramachandran tracked the processes by which data on anti-trafficking efforts and accomplishments in India is gathered for the US State Department. We are in the process of writing articles based on both studies. A third student, Jessica Shimmin, who received her Ph.D. in the Media, Culture, and Communication program, spent a year as a research assistant helping me track down background information on these and other indicators and co-authored a paper with me on human rights and gender violence in the US.
In addition to my own research on indicators and global governance, I have teamed up with Kevin Davis and Benedict Kingsbury at the New York University School of Law to create an NSF-funded research network that brings together scholars from around the world in conferences to discuss and analyze a variety of indicators in practice. We are planning to publish an initial set of articles from this collaboration and to continue to expand the network in the next two years with further conferences.
My current activities include serving as president of the American Ethnological Society, editing a book series, the Cambridge Series on Law and Society, from Cambridge University Press, and serving on numerous journal editorial boards. I am an adjunct professor at Australian National University and will receive an honorary degree from McGill School of Law in 2013. In 2010, I was awarded the J.I. Staley Prize of the School of Advanced Research for my book, Human Rights and Gender Violence (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2006). I am a faculty co-director of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice of the NYU School of Law and will teach a course on human rights in the Law School in Fall 2013. I work with many wonderful graduate students in Anthropology and Law and Society and enjoy watching their projects develop and come to fruition. The Anthropology Department at NYU continues to offer me an exciting and supportive environment for scholarly work in the field.