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Making Human Rights in the Vernacular: Plural Legalities and Traveling Rights in India, China, and the U.S.A.

New York University's Sally Engle Merry explores the process of translating human rights into the vernacular.

November 6, 2007 12:00pm to 1:30pm

How do human rights travel from their centers of creation to local communities? This presentation explores the process of translating human rights into the vernacular, arguing that as rights ideas travel and land, they do not stand alone but form assemblages of various kinds with other social movements. This comparative study, conducted in conjunction with Peggy Levitt, shows how women's human rights join with existing social justice ideas in China, India, and the USA. It is based on an ethnography of two  women's NGOs in each country. In each situation, the turn to a human rights framework adds new dimensions to the practices and ideology of the organization and shifts its assemblage of ideas and techniques. However, each human rights assemblage differs from that of other countries depending on the historic role of rights and other social justice ideologies in each place. In all the locations we studied, there were ongoing political and ideological tension between human rights ideas, grounded in the universal and international, and national ideas of rights that shaped the nature of the assemblage.

Sally Engle Merry is Professor of Anthropology and of Law and Society at New York University. Her work explores the role of law in urban life in the US, in the colonizing process, and in contemporary transnationalism. She is currently doing a comparative, transnational study of human rights and gender. She was previously on the faculty of Wellesley College, where she was the Marion Butler McLean Professor in the History of Ideas and Professor of Anthropology. Her recent books are "Colonizing Hawai’i: The Cultural Power of Law" (Princeton Univ. Press, 2000), which received the 2001 J. Willard Hurst Prize from the Law and Society Association, "Human Rights and Gender Violence: Translating International Law into Local Justice" (University of Chicago Press, 2006), and "The Practice of Human Rights: Tracking Law between the Local and the Global," (co-edited with Mark Goodale; Cambridge University Press, 2007). She has authored or edited four other books: "Law and Empire in the Pacific: Hawai’i and Fiji" (co-edited with Donald Brenneis, School of American Research Press, 2004), "The Possibility of Popular Justice: A Case Study of American Community Mediation" (co-edited with Neal Milner, Univ. of Michigan Press, 1993), "Getting Justice and Getting Even: Legal Consciousness among Working Class Americans" (University of Chicago Press, 1990), and "Urban Danger: Life in a Neighborhood of Strangers" (Temple University Press, 1981). She has recently published articles on women's human rights, violence against women, and the process of localizing human rights. She is past-president of the Law and Society Association and the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology and currently a member of the Executive Boards of the American Anthropological Association and the Law and Society Association.

Co-sponsored by the UM East Asian Gender Forum.