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.
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.
2009 Vernacularization in Action: Using Global Women's Human Rights Locally. Special Issue of Global Networks 9 (4). Co- edited with Peggy Levitt.
2010 Engaged Anthropology: Diversity and Dilemmas. Setha Low, co-Guest Editor. Current Anthropology, Wenner-Gren Symposium Series, Vol. 51, Supplement 2, October., pp. 201-330.
2012 Governance by Indicators: Global Power through Classification and Ranking. Kevin Davis, Angelina Fisher, Benedict Kingsbury, and Sally Engle Merry, eds. Oxford University Press.
2015 The Quiet Power of Indicators: Measuring Governance, Corruption, and Rule of Law. Edited by Sally Engle Merry, Kevin Davis, and Benedict Kingsbury. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.
Forthcoming 2016 The Seductions of Quantification: Global Governance, Human Rights, and the Rise of Indicator Culture. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.
2009. “Human Rights in the Imperial Heartland.” Pp. 49 - 65 In Rethinking America: The Imperial Homeland in the 21st Century. Edited by Jeff Maskovsky and Ida Susser. Paradigm Press.
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. Featured in 10th Anniversary special issue of classic articles in Global Networks.
2009. “Beyond Compliance: Toward An Anthropological Understanding of International Justice,” pp. 28 – 42 in Mirrors of Justice: Law and Power in the Post-Cold War Era. Kamari Clarke and Mark Goodale, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press Series in Law and Society.
2009. “Relating to the Subjects of Human Rights: The Culture of Agency in Human Rights Discourse.” Pp. 385-407, Chapter 15 in Law and Anthropology: Current Legal Issues Vol. 12. Michael Freeman and David Napier, ed. Oxford Univ. Press.
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: S203-226.
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. “Gender Justice and CEDAW: The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.” In Excavating Gender Justice, the Predicament and the Promise, edited by Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf. Journal of Women of the Middle East and the Islamic World 9(1–2) Hawwa 9.1/9.2. : 1-27.
2011. “Engaged Anthropology in the United States and its Relevance for World Anthropologies.” Co-authored with Setha Low. Pp. 93-110. in Global Anthropologies, Gustavo Lins Ribeiro, ed. Beijing: Intellectual Property Publishing House.
2011. ISBN 978-7-5130-0870-9. 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. “Legal Pluralism and Legal Culture: Mapping the Terrain.” Legal Pluralism and Development: Scholars and Practitioners in Dialogue. Brian Z. Tamanaha, Caroline Sage, and Michael Woolcock, eds. Pp. 66-83. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.
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.”pp. 140-152 in Human Rights at the Crossroads. Mark Goodale, ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
2013. “Doing vernacularization: The encounter between global and local ideas of women’s rights in Peru.” With Peggy Levitt, Rosa Alayza, and Mercedes Crisostomo Meza. Pp. 127 – 143 in Feminist Strategies in International Governance. Gulay Caglar, Elisabeth Prugl and Susanne Zwingel, eds. New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group.
2013. “Disjunctures between global law and local justice.” In Gender and Equality Law. Edited by Julie Goldscheid. Library of Essays on Equality and Anti-Discrimination Law. Ashgate. 2013. “Legal Pluralism in Practice.” McGill Law Journal 59:1-9.
2014. “Technologies of Truth in the Anthropology of Conflict.” Co-authored with Susan Coutin. American Ethnologist 41(1): 1-16.
2014. Abridged version reprinted in Zeitschrift fur Menschenrechte (Journal of Human Rights), issue on Menschenrechte und Gewalt (Human Rights and Power): 8 (1): 28-48.
2014. “Global Legal Pluralism and the Temporality of Soft Law.” Special Issue on Temporalities of Law, Journal of Legal Pluralism and Unofficial Law. 46 (1): 108-122.
2014. “Measuring the World: Indicators, Human Rights, and Global Governance.” pp.141 -165 in Law in Transition: Human Rights, Development and Transitional Justice. Ruth Buchanan and Peer Zumbansen, eds. Oxford: Hart Publishing Ltd. (expanded version of 2011 article.)
2014. “Inequality and Rights: Commentary on “The Unbearable Lightness of Rights” by Michael McCann.” Law and Society Review 48 (2): 285-295.
2015. “Firming Up Soft Law: The Impact of Indicators on Transnational Human Rights Legal Orders.” Chapter 11, pp. 374-400 in Transnational Legal Orders. Edited by Terence C. Halliday and Greg C. Shaffer. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
2015. “The Paradox of Measurement: Child Rights in Tanzania.” Co-authored with Summer J Wood. Current Anthropology. Vol 56 (2): 205-229.
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.