In this entry, I will report not on governance but on a book on governance from a neighbouring discipline that sociologists, organizational scholars and political scientists often ignore – social anthropology:

Sally Engle Merry, 2006. Human Rights and Gender Violence: Translating International Law into Local Justice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

I found this book interesting and important for a number of reasons. First, I found many parallels to my own work. Second and more important, the book motivates reflecting on the concept of culture and its place in the transnational governance dynamics.

In her book, Sally Engle Merry explores how different actors – both state and nonstate, local and global – translate global norms associated with human rights and gender violence into practices in societies and communities where human rights are nonexistent as a concept and where gender violence is not defined in human rights terms, is considered a part of a national culture and protected as such. She identifies three cultural processes, or flows, that constitute global-local translation:

(1) Transnational consensus building, or the making of the transnational gender antidiscrimination law

(2) Transnational institution and program transplantation, or the making of national laws and regulations, as well as programs and organizations compatible with the international human rights norms

(3) Localization of transnational knowledge, or the emergence of human rights consciousness among local women (pp. 19-21)

In my dissertation, I have focused on similar processes, namely on the translation of global norms of sustainable management of natural resources into specific local practices in contexts, in which many global requirements appear alien to locals and are difficult to implement. Similar to Merry, I argued that no matter how different and inappropriate local practices, laws and regulations may appear to be, skilful activists navigating between different levels and nodes in a patchy system of natural resource governance use local institutions and practices as a resource and facilitate the translation of global norms. By showing how local laws and habitual practices are compatible with transnational requirements, which is not always evident and needs to be constructed, they make transnational rules appear legitimate and acceptable to local actors and therefore make it easier for local actors to implement them.

More interesting is Merry’s contribution to the debates on culture. What is culture and how does it shape human behavior? Is culture a system of norms, values and beliefs that facilitate societal integration? Is it a system of traditions? It is a took-kit, a repertoire that human beings can use a resource to pursue their goals? It is a world-view? It is enabling or suppressive? Is it static and rigid or dynamic and fluid?

Merry suggests that culture can be both enabling and suppressive. Its elements can be used as a resource to preserve the existing distribution of power in a society or in a community, in this case the power of men over women. Cultural elements can also be used as a resource by those who challenge existing power structures and propose an alternative conceptualization of gender violence. Those who have power over women on a national, community or family level often claim that practices of violence against women facilitates the integration of a given society and preserves national identity and cultural diversity. The challengers instead mobilize cultural elements that are compatible with the global ideas of gender equality, respect for women and unacceptability of discrimination and violence against women. By demonstrating this compatibility of local and global ideas they seek to redefined women’s rights as compatible with national culture and identity to empower women.

Merry thus emphasizes that culture is not homogenous, integrated, consistent and fixed but contentious, accommodating conflicting elements, fluid and flexible. Culture is actively made. Culture “learns”. Culture changes through “hybridization” and “creolization”. Culture is not independent from institutional arrangements, political structures and legal regulations. When institutional and legal arrangements change culture understood as traditions, beliefs, norms, habits, practices, meanings and common sense also changes. The lack of political involvement of women can be explained as a part of a traditional culture, but if policy-makers allocate funds for providing child care women are more likely to join parties, attend political meeting and participate in elections. What we call “culture” can change and people can learn new roles if institutional and legal preconditions for this are installed by policy-makers (pp. 14-16).

The impetus for institutional and legal change may come from transnational political arenas, themselves embedded in the culture of modernity, which Meyer and his colleagues call Western cultural account (Meyer, Boli and Thomas 1987), or world culture (Boli 2005). In international organizations, such as UN, the representatives of nation-states and transnational activists develop global legal frameworks for human rights, for example the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Signatory states are obligated to accommodate international norms of gender equality and antidiscrimination in their national legislation and implement them. Policy-making often suggest that “culture” constitutes a barrier to the implementation of conventions, while feminist activists and social workers use local “culture” to promote human rights respect and offer women support in difficult situations. They do not build on preexisting similarities of transnational ideas and local culture but they construct similarities, embed transnational ideas into cultural frameworks and dress them in “familiar costumes” (p. 138).

In other words, culture for Merry is a fluid, flexible, changing and actively made resource that can either be used to preserve existing distribution of power embodied in legal and institutional, both formal and informal, arrangements, or it can be used to promote new ideas, concepts, policies and practices in the policy-making and on the ground. In this sense, it still unclear to me what is the independent role of culture. It appears to be only an instrument in the hands of people who appeal to it to achieve their different, often contradictory political goals. There seems to be a danger in this whole debate to define culture as either a consistent and fixed set of beliefs, traditions and values or as a flexible tool-kit of cultural instruments and resources that can be used by knowledgeable strategic actors to pursue their goal (see also Swidler 1985). The truth is probably somewhere in the middle but the question is where. Although Merry does not provide an explicit answer to this question, her book is an excellent example of a study that addresses the interplay between local culture, local politics, transnational ideas and transnational politics.

I would also like to note on the margin that Merry’s book is also methodologically innovative and illuminating (definitely for me as a sociologist). She calls her approach deterritorialized ethnography (pp. 28-35). Traditionally, social anthropology has focused on local places. Since Merry deals with processes in which the local and the global are intertwined, she identifies places where global, national and local processes are revealed: five local places in the Asia-Pacific region and in the deterritorialized world of the UN conferences and NGO activism. She thus accumulates impressive data on (and understanding of) both transnational and local culture and politics, as well as on their interaction in local and global spaces. This book seems to be worth looking into for all scholars doing ethnographic research in transnational governance and its local unfolding.


Boli, John. 2005. “Contemporary Developments in World Culture.” International Journal of Comparative Sociology 46: 383-404

Meyer, John W., John Boli and George M. Thomas. 1987. “Ontology and Rationalization in the Western Cultural Account.” In Institutional Structure: Constituting State, Society and Individual, edited by Thomas, George M., John W. Meyer, Francisco O. Ramirez and John Boli. Newbury Park: Sage

Swidler, Ann. 1986. “Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies.” American Sociological Review 51: 273-286