Creative Scholar &
Professional Intellectual

RIP Sally Engle Merry

I am deeply saddened by the news of Sally Engle Merry’s passing. 

Sally Merry was a pioneer in the anthropology of human rights whose work was known far beyond the borders of anthropology the world over.

Her work ranged from the People’s International Tribunal in Hawaii to the expert practices and advocacy campaigns around women’s rights both at the UN and diverse local contexts. More recently she focused on the seduction of quantification in international governance and modernity writ large. 

Her concept of ‘vernacularization’ is perhaps the single most influential term offered by anthropology to account for the mechanisms via which human rights consciousness and activity have spread.

I was fortunate to have her as my Phd examiner in 2008. Our 3.5 hour marathon exchange pushed my capacities to their limits – and ended up inspiring much of the scholarship that I have carried out since. All of this was because of a simple ‘wouldn’t it be interesting’ that she uttered in our exchange.

Yes, it has been interesting to follow the full documentary cycle of a human rights report processed by a high profile UN human rights expert body – thank you Sally!

A met her numerous times since. Often she had just crossed the Atlantic, diligently carrying on until late hours of the evening despite jet lag. I remain awed by her professional ethic and patience as she engaged perpetually with novel audiences.

Simultaneously she had a distinct, unmistakable zing to her, speaking of the deep passion that underlined her work. I got to see one glimpse of this on a walk back to our hotel after a prolonged day of intense workshopping.

By then we were all exhausted, and the walk felt long. Sally showed no signs of fatigue but instead raced ahead with a pace that left those half her age struggling to keep up. 

This sentiment is definitely replicated by her scholarship – it feels breath-taking to even try to follow in her footsteps.

The vastness of her scholarly legacy is difficult to grasp. Fortunately she offered some guidance herself.

In 2016 Josh Clark and myself edited a Virtual Edition on Human Rights for PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropologival Review. For this, we selected key pieces published in PoLAR over the past 20 years and invited their authors to write afterwords. 

Sally discussed her 1993 article ‘Legal Vernacularization and Ka Ho’okolokolonui Kanaka Maoli, The People’s International Tribunal, Hawai’i 1993’, simultaneously ending up reflecting on her entire scholarship.

The afterword offers a wonderful reminder of how her seemingly diverse fieldsites and strands of thought come together. She writes:

“In sum, the People’s International Tribunal in Hawai’i offers insight into the way that law provides and obscures justice, offering a language of rights and claims at the same time as it legitimates acts of power such as the US annexation of the Hawaiian Islands. Quantification, another form of knowledge production, acts in similar ways, both making visible and concealing.    

These are critically important issues to understand in a world in which law and quantification are increasingly promoted as the path to modernity, and in which their role in maintaining relations of power are often less centrally recognized.”

Thank you, Sally, for all that you have given us! Rest in peace!