Dignity in Turbulent Times: Disputed Questions of Law, Justice, and Rights

Fri, 5/31: 10:00 AM  - 11:45 AM 
Paper Session 
Friday Session 2 
Room: Congressional B 
Ethnographic studies of law and society have become integral to understanding diverse lived realities. This panel features in-depth research that explores how people understand and maintain dignity in a changing world. Considering the challenges of these turbulent political times, our aim is to explore and better understand what, as well as how, dignity comes to mean in everyday life and the various ways people engage with, use, or circumvent law to maintain their dignity. Papers consider how participants negotiate law in the context of human rights, forensic science, specialist courts, and seemingly mundane practices of dispute resolution. Capturing diverse sites and forms of engagement, the papers explore different meanings and tensions that emerge around dignity in legalized contexts.


Kathryn Henne, University of Waterloo  - Contact Me


03: Ethnography, Law & Society

Primary Keyword

Access to Justice

Secondary Keyword



Conceptions of 'Self' and of 'Dignity' : Victims Versus Their Natal Family Members in Human Rights Cases in India


Through a lens of conceptions of 'dignity' and 'self', the paper compares the ways in which women victims conceptualize events of extreme violence as compared with their natal family members involved in their cases. In examining actors' discourse the data highlight limits of formal laws' capabilities, the power non-state laws of community, religion and family operating on the ground. They further highlight how through a framework legal pluralism, we can more clearly assess the actual workings of transnational human rights laws and domestic laws in compliance and the impact and internalization of these laws by those whom they are designed to protect.

The paper draws on qualitative, partly ethnographic data from a multi-case study in 8 states of India. The date is part of a forthcoming book, The Purchase of Human Rights (OUP). The manuscript is based on fieldwork involving interviews, questionnaires and participant observations of women victims of violence, accused, families, lawyers, judges and mediators in 400 cases processed in panchayats, adalats and courts in 8 states of India between 2005-2011 and data from 2012-present.

Scant legal scholarship bases its analyses on the discourse of those involved in human rights violations cases in the postcolonial world in the context of legal pluralism. How we understand the competing normative orders of transnational and domestic laws protecting victims of violence versus grassroots legal orders involving individuals as members of family, kin and community with their concomitant rules and regulations is critical to improving real access to justice. 


Tamara Relis, London School of Economics, South Asia Centre  - Contact Me

Decolonizing or ‘Deep Colonizing’ Practices in Australian Murri Courts


Queensland Indigenous sentencing courts or Murri Courts are a specialist criminal law initiative that includes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders and respected persons in the sentencing process of defendants. To participate in the Murri Court program, a defendant must identify as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander, have been granted bail, pleaded guilty to all their charges, and agreed to participate fully in the process. In this paper, I argue that Murri Courts are a stepping-stone to creating a more 'just' court process and sentencing outcome for Australian Indigenous peoples. However, Murri Courts also reveal the 'deep colonizing' practices that permeate the laws, policies, and processes that seek to decolonize the criminal justice system. In particular, I explore how Indigenous peoples maintain their sense of dignity and justice in response to practices that often limit their authority and laws in settler-colonial countries. 


Amelia Radke, University of Queensland  - Contact Me

Dignifying the Database: A Necropolitics for Turbulent Times, Mexico Edition


Since the start of the "war on drugs" in 2006, Mexico has been under siege. According to independent sources, disappeared persons can be counted in the hundreds of thousands, while clandestine mass graves are discovered nonstop (the highest rate of discovery being 164 mass graves over a period of 18 months). Thousands of unidentified bodies are kept in under-equipped facilities where they are frequently mishandled and quickly decompose or they are stacked -hundreds at a time- in mobile refrigerated units that aimlessly roam the streets. Searching families protest during the "National March for Dignity" to demand justice for their disappeared. They also flock to state-sponsored blood collection sites to donate samples in the hope that authorities will be able to identify their missing through the recently created National Search System. I analyze this phenomenon as one in which, in the absence of security for the living and dignified treatment of the dead, claims of dignity and justice inexorably move us to a digital world. Based on ethnographic work and "fieldnoting" of death and disappearance in Mexico, I argue that both through the state's in/actions and through the victims' demands, a positive match on a database becomes the site where human dignity is restored. 


Vivette Garcia-Deister, UNAM  - Contact Me

Ritual Propriety in the Aftermath of a Traffic Accident


This paper is an ethnographic examination of the process of traffic accident dispute
resolution in China through the analytical frame of 'ritual propriety.' That China's traffic
situation is chaotic is at this point a truism. Government efforts in recent years to both raise the quality (suzhi) of Chinese drivers, as well as devise institutional mechanisms to formalize and regularize the process of resolving traffic disputes in pursuit of broader government goals of promoting 'harmonious society,' have resulted in a variety of responses at the local level. This study builds upon existing ethnographies of dispute resolution in China that emphasize analytical frames prioritizing utilitarian thinking, harmony, or morality, by operationalizing the concept of 'ritual propriety' as an alternative way to understand the lived experience of traffic disputants. Based on three months of ethnographic field research in Chengdu, Sichuan Province at two types of formal institutions of traffic dispute resolution, I highlight how much of the work of 'dispute resolution' occurs outside of the formal institutional spaces of these Branch Offices and Quick-Resolution Centers, and actors deploy novel strategies and uses of these institutions beyond the idealizations represented in processual flow-charts, or within the written rules and mandates of the institution. The concept of ritual propriety, I argue, allows us to take into account considerations of compassion, respect, and reasonableness in individual determinations of right and wrong. In particular, the concept highlights the importance of conferring dignity and the experience of mutual recognition in generating the stakes of the traffic dispute itself. 


Kristin Makai Sangren, University of California-Berkeley  - Contact Me

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