One of the tall tales of modernity goes like this: as human societies become more complex — more industrial, urban, mass mediated, and public — the importance of kinship as an organizing principle decreases. The rule is invoked in multiple settings, often with a judgmental spin. Seldom does an identity narrative seem so self-evidently true and false at the same time. If we were to flip it, keeping its exaggerated feel but reversing the implications, the story might sound like this: claims about the diminishing significance of kinship (and its radically changing forms) have ethical weight because they are contested, very often inaccurate, and based on aspirations that are hard to realize in everyday life because ideas of relatedness are so important to us. Is this an improved version of the tall tale, or evidence that we need to tell a different kind of story altogether?
CSSH has been host to an impressive gathering of essays on the cultural and historical aspects of law. During the last decade, we have published influential pieces on Islamic law, on states and their jurisdictions, on spaces beyond the law, on legal practitioners, criminals, police, and prisons.
In 1995, Sherry Ortner published an essay in CSSH that continues to attract readers today. “Resistance and the Problem of Ethnographic Refusal” (37/1: 173-193), explored a trend, emergent at the time, in which resistance-oriented scholars were abandoning fine-grained accounts of local, subaltern worlds for critical analysis of external, impinging powers: the empire, the state, the global economy. The outcome, Ortner claimed, was superficial work inadequate to its own political ambitions. In the following exchange with Andrew Shryock, Ortner discusses the positions she took in this essay, giving us a sense of where her ideas came from and how they have changed during two decades of subsequent scholarship.