[Galit A. Sarfaty is the Canada Research Chair in Global Economic Governance and Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Law, University of British Columbia]
With the growing importance of global legal institutions, new forms of global law, and transnational social movements around legal issues, anthropologists are studying the multiplicity of sites where international law operates. Scholars have examined the practices of international courts and tribunals and their conceptions of justice in relation to those of local communities. They have studied the global impact of law-oriented nongovernmental organizations on postcolonial consciousness. They have also analyzed the production of international treaties by transnational elites and their localization and translation on the ground. Given the critical need to uncover how international law is produced and operates in practice, legal scholars can gain insights from anthropological literature and adopt ethnographic tools in their own analysis. As I will outline below, anthropology offers unique insights in understanding international law behavior.
What is an Anthropological Approach to International Law
Anthropological theory and methods enables the study of how international law operates in practice, from how it is produced on a global scale to its localization on the micro-level. Through ethnographic research, anthropologists analyze individual actions, systems of meaning, power dynamics, and the political and economic contexts that shape the operation of international law. They recognize disjunctures between how laws are written and how they are implemented on the ground, as well as further variations in how they affect different communities. In the context of Harold Koh’s transnational legal process theory of norm compliance, an anthropological approach sheds light on the norm emergence and internalization phases by which international norms penetrate domestic legal systems on the local level.
Ethnographic research involves case-oriented study, including long-term fieldwork and in-depth interviews. In the context of studying international law, fieldwork is frequently multi-sited to allow researchers to analyze such phenomena as the transnational circulation of global norms and local settings where multiple legal orders intersect—or what scholars call “global legal pluralism.” By tracking the flow of laws, institutions, people, and ideas across locales and jurisdictions, multi-sited “deterritorialized” ethnography is a useful tool in the study of international law.
Anthropological research aims at answering a question rather than testing a hypothesis. Unlike other methods, it is not based on prior assumptions or models. Rather, hypotheses and theories emerge from the data, and are constantly evaluated and adjusted as the research progresses. Interviews are usually unstructured or semi-structured with open-ended questions developed in response to observations and ongoing analysis. The questions are designed to seek respondents’ interpretations of what is happening and allow them to describe problems, policy solutions, and their rationales in their own words.
What Anthropologists of International Law Study
While there are numerous areas of focus for anthropologists of international law, I will very briefly highlight a few important ones here: (i) the cultures of international organizations and international tribunals; (ii) the transnational circulation and localization of international legal norms; and (iii) the knowledge practices and technologies of governance in international law.