Vale Sally Engle Merry

Sally Engle Merry - A Tribute from Margaret Jolly

(L to R: Bina D'Costa, Sally Engle Merry, Fiona Jenkins, Sally Moyle, Margaret Jolly)

I first met Sally on the page as the author of Colonizing Hawai’i: The Cultural Power of Law  (2000) a brilliant study of how introduced Anglo-American law was fundamental in how Kanaka Maoli, the Indigenous inhabitants of Hawai’i were dispossessed and their lives transformed by the confluence of capitalism and Christianity in the imperial project. This is a classic text in legal anthropology and Pacific studies, bringing a forensic appraisal of the past to the problems of the present. The subsequent book with Don Brenneis Law and Empire in the Pacific was equally compelling. Her later work on gender violence and human rights was pathbreaking in its ethnographic insights on the  processes of the United Nations as well with human rights and feminist organizations across Asia and the Pacific, seeking to redress the global scourge of gender violence in its many manifestations. I found her ideas of how human rights was being ‘vernacularized’ especially helpful in relation to my own work in the Pacific, and Vanuatu in particular. Her work on human rights revealed the heavy reliance on numbers and indicators in relation to promoting gender equality, women’s rights and children’s rights, and she persuasively challenged what she dubbed ‘indicator culture’ and how ‘evidence-based ‘policy so often marginalized qualitative research and succumbed to the ‘seduction of quantification’ – the title of her superb book on this.

I finally met Sally in person when Professor Hilary Charlesworth and I collaborated to bring her to the Australian National University for several years from 2011 when we both had Australian Research Council Laureate Fellowships – Hilary’s focused on the rituals of human rights and my own focused on the gendering of emergent individualisms in Oceania. When we announced that Sally would come regularly as a Visiting Professor to ANU, delivering public lectures, seminars and master classes for graduate students and early career academics, there was great excitement amongst our colleagues. We were not disappointed – her public lectures and seminars were always stellar – I was utterly impressed by her capacity to speak lucidly at length, seemingly without notes. And in her smaller master classes and in dedicated meetings with many graduate students and early career academics she gave generously in a way that empowered their own scholarship. I was delighted to take her on drives in search of kangaroos which abound in Canberra and in shopping for some exquisite opal jewellery. She was a joy to host – rebounding back quickly after those exhausting long flights from the east coast through Sydney to Canberra and joining us in savouring good Australian food and wine, accompanied by stimulating collegial conversation

Clearly all of these qualities in Sally as a scholar and a person have been relished in the United States for decades – in institutional contexts like NYU and Wellesley and in the professional organisations to which she has offered leadership and wisdom. I witnessed at a meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Washington in 2014 where I participated in a panel held in her honour how much she is loved by her colleagues and all those she has supervised and mentored. The last few years have been hard – the untimely death of her beloved sister and then her own cancer diagnosis. I have been struck by her capacity to keep on working and writing in the face of ill health and by her own staunch pragmatism. When we last spoke, discussing some of her most recent writing, I told her how sad I was that our borders are now closed to visiting each other again and how much I loved her and her work. We all owe you so much Sally. 

In Memoriam: Sally Engle Merry




Beyond ANU, Gender Institute

Date posted

Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Updated:  7 November 2012/Responsible Officer:  Convenor, Gender Institute/Page Contact:  Web manager, Gender Institute