The use of theory in a postgraduate thesis

February 20, 1998

For good or bad, theory seems to be what is always somewhere else - what is outside one's discipline, on the continent, to be imported or kept at bay.

Anthropology was somewhere else for me; I came to the discipline from legal studies out of frustration at the latest quagmires that theory had imported into the law. In my fields of comparative and international law, it seemed that the devastating lessons of post-structuralism had brought an unbearable anxiety that every position was taken, that every critique generated its own counter-critique.

Analysis found itself outdone, reduced to the mere replication of endless further examples. It had not occurred to me that going somewhere else, the submission to the anthropologist's illogical faith in the ethnographic inquiry - participant observation that takes on a whole institution or society - would mean a re-enactment of the anxious encounter with theory, in a double sense.

My fieldwork among Fijian participants in UN global conferences brought into view a series of artefacts of negotiators' knowledge which are ubiquitous (although untheorised) elements of international legal practice.These include, for example, the "networks" of non governmental organisations that proliferate in the Pacific and the documents of UN conferences. Although I "knew" much about these artefacts before living and working in Fiji, they were not accessible to me as subjects of study. They became thinkable as topics of research only through the practice of working with Fijian government workers or activists and rediscovering these subjects as what mattered to them.

My study is an artefact of a moment at which anthropology's tools are being turned on the most mundane, and hence (in the post-structuralist view) most interesting of Euro-American knowledge practices. In my own study, there were new challenges associated with writing about phenomena which are both "here" and "somewhere else", as both analysis and enactment.Where knowledge turns so explicitly on itself, there are perhaps also new ethical issues raised by the prospect of living one's daily life as if life were fieldwork, that is, with the tension between commitment and distance that generates ethnographic observation by turning one's relationships into data.

Annelise Riles is assistant professor at the Northwestern University school of law. She was one of Marilyn Strathern's doctoral students.

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