(1) A Revolution in Fragments

Beginning in 2006, in the wake of the historic election of Evo Morales as the first self-identifying Indigenous president of Bolivia, I began new research on the legal, political, and ideological dimensions of what came to be known as the “process of change.” Over almost ten years, I conducted ethnographic and historical research among a wide range of social and political actors in Bolivia, focusing on the three regions of La Paz, Sucre, and Santa Cruz.

Given the innovative and indeed radical nature of many of the changes put into place during the Morales years, Bolivia became an unprecedented case study of the outer limits of revolutionary transformation within a wider world marked by neoliberal consolidation, capitalist hegemony, and neocolonialist forms of regional and global governance. In particular, the project evaluated the accomplishments of the MAS government during this period through the framework of Nancy Fraser’s theory of justice, which points to the need to balance recognition, redistribution, and representation within state and social policies. The book based on this project was published during the same weeks in which the Morales government was overthrown in a right-wing coup by opponents who took advantage of existing grievances to end the longest period of political stability in Bolivian history.

(2) The UNESCO Human Rights Survey

During the mid-2000s, I became intrigued by what seemed to be merely a detail in the wider history of anthropology’s troubled relationship with the postwar human rights project. A document, published in 1947 supposedly under the auspices of the American Anthropological Association, had taken a very critical position on the process of drafting what became the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document, which seemed to be associated with UNESCO, became important much later, during the late-1990s, when pro-human rights scholars mobilized to defend human rights against a range of attacks, from scholars who viewed human rights as a form of postcolonial moral imperialism, to those—mostly authoritarian states—who sought to fend off criticisms of their repressive internal policies.

In order to clarify the origin of the document and its wider history, I conducted archival research at UNESCO in Paris and in archives whose importance was later revealed, including the Julian Huxley archives at Rice University and the Richard McKeon papers in the Special Collections of the University of Chicago Library. What I discovered is that the anthropological document was part of a fascinating global survey undertaken by UNESCO, mostly during 1947, on the underlying principles of human rights.

The research project uncovered many unknown documents and dimensions to the UNESCO survey, which carry significant implications for both the history and future of human rights. The results of this project were published in several articles and book chapters and in a curated history of the survey, which contains all the known responses received by UNESCO in 1947 and 1948.

(3) Anthropology and Law: History, Debates, Future Directions

I have been conducting research and writing about the anthropology of law since 1991, when I completed an M.Sc. at the London School of Economics based on a “historical and theoretical analysis” of the subdiscipline under the direction of Professor Simon Roberts. Working as an anthropologist of law for many years brought me into contact with the wonderfully supportive intellectual community within the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology, and was the beginning of many close professional relationships in the field.

After being recruited to the chair in cultural and social anthropology at the University of Lausanne in 2014, I decided to mark this important transition by completing a “critical introduction” to anthropology and law, which had been suggested by an editor at NYU Press. This volume, which is dedicated to the memory of Simon Roberts, allowed me to synthesize thinking about the relationship between anthropology and law and make a number of arguments about the future of the subdiscipline.

At the same time, in part through my association with the Consultative Committee of the Department of Law and Anthropology at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle, Germany, I joined the editorial team that was working on The Oxford Handbook of Law and Anthropology, a project that unfolded over a number of years. The resulting volume, which is being published online and in print, reflects both a global perspective and an effort to bring anthropologists and lawyers into dialogue around common problems such as rights, religious diversity, migration, transitional justice, and food sovereignty.

(4) Toward a Critical Anthropology of Human Rights

While conducting research in Bolivia during 1998 and 1999, I discovered that international and transnational human rights NGOs had been engaged in a concerted effort to transform social relations and moral life in many rural areas through human rights activism, which was being combined with development assistance to create a new form of humanitarian intervention. This discovery required me to adapt both the theoretical assumptions of the project and its methodology, since legal and social processes in the province were being re-embedded within wider global activist networks.

After adding a section on the anthropology of human rights to the project, I later turned to questions and collaborations around this emerging specialty with greater interest. Under the initial guidance of pioneers such as Richard A. Wilson and Sally Engle Merry, I began to explore the possibilities of what I would later describe as a “critical anthropology of human rights” in earnest, both through individual publications and through different forms of collective scholarship, including a special issue of American Anthropologist and a coedited volume that would come to play an important role in the intellectual history. 

Although I categorize this project as completed, my work on the anthropology of human rights continues in different ways, particularly through my role as Series Editor of Stanford Studies in Human Rights, which has published many ethnographic studies of human rights.

(5) Dilemmas of Modernity in Bolivia

During the academic year 1998-1999, I conducted ethnographic fieldwork in a remote region of Bolivia’s Potosí Department. Based in the province of Alonso de Ibáñez, I studied conflict resolution, Indigenous social and political systems called ayllus, and articulations between Indigenous and peasant communities and the Bolivian state. In retrospect, it became clear that this project, which formed the basis for both my doctoral dissertation in anthropology and first published book, took place during the waning years of Bolivia’s ancien régime, years marked by widespread social resistance to more than a decade of neoliberal governance under the sign of the Washington Consensus. Yet in the norte de Potosí, both within the provincial capital of Sacaca, and among the province’s hamlets, the signs of the historical transition that was coming with the election of Evo Morales in 2005 were largely invisible.

In the tradition of legal anthropological research, which used a focus on the “trouble cases” to gain access to deeper normative and cultural meanings, I spent many months observing conflict resolution sessions, discussing the contours of law with actors I described as “rural-legal intellectuals” (following Gramsci via Steven Feierman), and studying hundreds of dusty legal expedientes in the neglected archives of the provincial court (access to which I negotiated by offering to organize files and create a registry of cases). 

As far as I am aware, my doctoral research was only the second in legal anthropology conducted in the Andean region; the first was Sylvia Forman’s 1972 dissertation under Laura Nader at the University of California-Berkeley (“Law and Conflict in Rural Highland Ecuador”). Although subsequent research interests have taken me away from Alonso de Ibáñez, this period of research was foundational to my training as an ethnographer. It was also a very difficult year, one that came with different kinds of risk. In trying to understand the implications of the later national project to remake Bolivia into what a colleague has described as an “Indigenous state,” my experiences in the norte de Potosí proved invaluable.