Ethnography in the Archives

  • Sally Engle Merry


An anthropologist using archival legal texts, such as court records, faces a challenging situation: In order to make sense of these records, she has to ground them in an ethnography of the surrounding community. This includes an analysis of its major actors and its changing political, economic, social, and cultural terrain over a long period of time. In order to do this, the anthropologist must do ethnography in the archives. For an anthropologist like me who had previously done only contemporary ethnography, this was an intriguing and painstaking project, but one that was very rewarding. I found myself able to talk about change over time far more easily, although the inability to discuss these changes with my subjects or to ask them any questions was always frustrating. I had to make do with the small clues they left behind. In this chapter, I will describe my efforts to do historical ethnography using nineteenth-century court records and surrounding archival information from a small town in Hawai’i. My argument is that understanding valuable primary records such as court dockets demands extensive attention to archival ethnography in the surrounding community.


Domestic Violence District Court Sugar Plantation Court Record Domestic Violence Case 


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Copyright information

© June Starr and Mark Goodale 2002

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  • Sally Engle Merry

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