Ethnographies of Law I: Activism, Struggle, Inequality and Crisis

Sat, 6/1: 2:45 PM  - 4:30 PM 
Paper Session 
Saturday Session 4 
Room: Congressional B 
This panel is the first in a series dedicated to ethnographies of law. It explores how legality operates in the context of different contemporary challenges, particularly those deemed crises. The papers examine how different actors mobilize law to mobilize against and counter inequalities. Specifically, they illustrate the use of the court as a place of resistance in Cambodia, the location of law within political trials in Russia, management of political rebellion through cycles of mass arrest and arbitrary detention in India, practices of vigilante justice in Bolivia, and the contribution of lead poisoning to urban inequality in the Northeastern United States.


Jenniffer Olenewa, University of Waterloo  - Contact Me


03: Ethnography, Law & Society

Primary Keyword



Life in a Leaded Landscape: Understanding Housing, Illness, and Struggle in the Rust Belt


How does lead poisoning contribute to urban inequality? Medical practitioners have known the physiological consequences of lead poisoning for children, but media coverage of Flint's 2015 lead water crisis jolted the public with the health risks caused by America's crumbling infrastructure. For landlords, keeping units lead safe proves daunting because lead resides in paint or water and minor rehabilitation like sanding transfers lead paint from walls to the floor via dust. Lead exposure accompanies and exacerbates traditional paths of intersectional stratification found in disinvested, often minority urban communities. This research analyses how exposure to environmental risks compound pre-existing hardships for low-income tenants and create new ones. Buffalo provides an exemplar of industrial decline: the city contains poverty levels, segregation measures, population shrinkage, and lead poisoning rates similar to Cleveland, Baltimore, and other cities. Data collection centers on semi-structured interviews with tenants living in and landlords leasing potentially leaded housing in highly segregated neighborhoods. Ethnographic interviews in tenants' homes provides insight into lived experience in dilapidated housing of poor neighborhoods. Methodologically, comparison of tenants' and landlords' experiences with lead risks provides deeper understanding of complex housing processes: tenants' relocating due to lead risks, landlords financially burdened by abatement, and legal conflicts resulting from the time abatement will take to ensure habitability after lead exposure. Charting various experiences with housing posing risks of lead poisoning allows for understanding how regulatory structures, financial constraints, housing needs, and health risks converge to contribute to housing instability and reproduce urban inequalities. The multi- methods employed move beyond victim/villain typologies toward top-down/bottom-up understandings of lead poisoning as a social problem. 


Matthew McLeskey, University at Buffalo, SUNY  - Contact Me

Premeditated Rage: Escalating Collective Violence in Response to Crime in Rural Bolivia, South America


This paper engages with the literature on collective and violent responses to crime in urban and rural marginal areas of Latin America. It specifically focuses on one linchamiento, an act of collective violence in which residents from the rural town of Lawa took justice into their own hands against a member of their community in July of 2010. Seventeen years old Edson Ramírez had allegedly stolen computer equipment with an accomplice from the local school. Contrary to what the literature on collective violence suggests, the physical punishment and the subsequent death of the perpetrator of this robbery unfolded over the course of three weeks. Rather than a spontaneous emotional outburst marked by confrontational tension and fear, and the presence of an audience (Collins 2008), residents from Lawa pursued their own investigations to locate the stolen computers, identified the author of the crime, and pressed his relatives to give him away. In the absence of state judicial and law-enforcement institutions in the area, the linchamiento victim's family escaped town and reported the event to the ombudsman when it was already too late. Based on the case file and on interviews with workers at the prosecutor office that led the pretrial investigation for the case, as well as a dataset of almost 30 similar events in El Alto between 2008 and 2016, this paper argues that collective violence in response to crime may escalate for reasons beyond confrontational tension and fear. The close proximity of state institutions paradoxically fosters a quicker and more brutal response from individuals seeking to take justice into their own hands. 


Jorge Derpic, University of Georgia  - Contact Me

The Grid of Indefinite Incarceration: Ethnographic Engagement and Counter-Insurgency Lawfare in Indian Administered Kashmir


This paper considers how the Indian state deploys hyperlegal techniques of administrative detention orders and proliferating criminal cases to produce a grid of indefinite detention of political dissidents and street protesters in Indian-administered Kashmir. We argue that this dense and hybrid infrastructure of multiple and interlocking legal jurisdictions and concurrent and contingent legal processes is a crucial aspect of the Indian state's counter-insurgency lawfare. It is embedded across domains of criminal justice, public administration, and national security, and premised on efforts to "manage" political rebellion in Kashmir through cycles of persuasion, punishment, detention and release. Our analysis is based on a multi-sited ethnography of juridicolegal documentary practices and courtroom performances in 2016 and 2017-- a period of intense popular protest and violent state repression through various techniques including mass arrests and illegal and arbitrary detentions. First conceptualized through conversations during our active involvement in a campaign against the political imprisonment of a colleague and human rights defender, Khurram Parvez, the paper is an exercise in engaged, reflexive and collaborative scholarship that meditates upon the politics and practices of ethnography amidst crisis, conflict, and war. 


Haley Duschinski, Ohio University  - Contact Me

Non-Presenting Co-Author

Shrimoyee Ghosh, Independent researcher  - Contact Me

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