Anthropology News Column

APLA publishes a regular column featuring section news, research reports, and announcements in the newsletter of the American Anthropological Association, Anthropology News, and we welcome submissions and proposals for columns, which will be published simultaneously here (see below) and on the AN website (  This 1,000-word column is an ideal forum for placing brief reports of current fieldwork, news about methodological or teaching tools, reflective pieces, or to announce new books and special issues of interest to APLA members.
The field of political and legal anthropology is broad, and topics might include considerations—from an anthropological perspective—of nationalism, citizenship, and the state, political and legal processes and pluralisms, property rights and patenting, colonialism and post-colonialism, human rights, arbitration and dispute-resolution, multiculturalism, immigration, refugees, or media politics (this list is neither exhaustive nor exclusive.
To propose a column please contact the column editors, Leo Coleman ( or Allison Fish (


Current Anthropology News Column-April 2014:

Demystifying the APLA Section Presidency

Susan Bibler Coutin, past president of APLA (2011-13)
Professor of criminology, law, and society and anthropology,
University of California, Irvine.

In fall 2013, I stood before 150 newly admitted graduate students at UC Irvine’s annual New Graduate Student Orientation, leading a break-out session on “Career Planning from Day One.”  “What do you think has most contributed to my career success, to the degree that I’ve been successful?” I asked them.  “Communication skills?” one guessed.  “Good mentoring?” another suggested.  Both of those were helpful, I told them, but for me, there has been one overarching factor:  “Getting involved in my specialization’s professional association.”

I first became involved in the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology (APLA) when I had just finished graduate school at Stanford University. My dissertation chair Jane Collier was the president of APLA and she appointed me as the section’s secretary-treasurer.  At that time, APLA was already a thriving section of the AAA, and outgoing secretary-treasurer Rebecca French (SUNY Buffalo), board member Rosemary Coombe (York U) and others were working to transform the association’s newsletter into a journal.  As I recall, Rosemary thought of a title for the journal:  PoLAR:  Political and Legal Anthropology Review, as well as a slogan, “Don’t publish it, polarize it!” which was meant to encourage junior scholars to place early versions of their work in PoLAR so they could receive feedback.  This slogan quickly became out-of-date as the stature of the work appearing in PoLAR rose.  Currently led by editors John Conley and Justin Richland and PoLAR Online Associate Editor Kate Henne, PoLAR is now the leading journal in the subfield of political and legal anthropology, with an ISI impact factor of 0.743 (in the top half of the anthropology list).

Over the years APLA has become an intellectual home where I have encountered cutting edge work, met some of my closest colleagues, and grown as a scholar and researcher.  I have served as associate editor of PoLAR, PoLAR editorial board member, APLA treasurer (after the secretary and treasurer positions split), APLA co-webmaster, and co-program chair, before eventually being nominated to run for section president in 2010. I accepted the nomination in hopes of being able to give something back to the association and, somewhat to my surprise, was actually elected to a term that ended in 2013.

So what does a section president do?  I am certain that this varies from section to section, but in my experience, it meant tracking APLA initiatives and moving them forward, thinking about relationships between various section activities (for example, could our invited sessions be written up as Anthropology News columns?), representing APLA within the AAA Section Assembly, presiding over the APLA board and business meetings, and always considering how we could better serve our members.  In practical terms that meant phone calls, emails, “to do” lists, reports, memos, brainstorming, filling vacant appointments, drafting agendas, and organizing events—as well as always being overbooked at the AAA meeting itself.  Nonetheless, this was an exciting position to hold!

As an association, APLA is known for innovation, and although I can take no credit for that wider reputation I was fortunate to help foster a number of new initiatives while I was president.  In 2012, American Ethnological Society (AES) president Sally Merry (NYU) approached APLA with the idea that we would co-host the annual AES meeting in Chicago around the theme, “Anthropologies of Conflict in a New Millennium.”  Thus, in 2013 APLA held its first meeting separate from the annual AAA gathering.  This event featured an APLA distinguished lecture by Katherine Verdery (CUNY), an AES distinguished lecture by Carolynn Nordstrom (U. Notre Dame), and a co-authored Presidential Address by Sally Merry and myself (now published in the February, 2014, issue of American Ethnologist). Equally exciting for me were the creative graduate student workshops that APLA Student Board Representative Josh Clark (UC Irvine) organized on such themes as “Secularism in Law and Politics.”

For years, APLA has nurtured junior scholars through a student-organized “shadow program” that enables graduate students to workshop papers and attend career panels with distinguished scholars.  We also supported a Graduate Student Mentee, Matt Canfield (NYU) through the National Association of Student Anthropologists’ “Emerging Leaders in Anthropology” Program.

APLA has also responded proactively to the concern that the AAA’s publishing program will soon become unsustainable.  In 2013, we formed a subcommittee to consider the future of publishing and devoted our business meeting to a brainstorming session on how to expand anthropology’s reach. By creating PoLAR On-line which features thematic virtual issues on such themes as “Transparency” and “NGOs” and by establishing a Digital Editorial Fellows program to build junior scholars’ editorial expertise, APLA is already ahead of its time.  In the coming years, we have plans to expand PoLAR’s readership among law, law and society, politics, international studies, and international scholars.  Additionally, APLA’s visibility will be increased by our new book prize, to be awarded for the first time in 2014.

APLA’s current president, Madelaine Adelman (Arizona State) already has exciting plans afoot for the coming years.  A special event, “Producing Political and Legal Knowledge through Cross-Disciplinary Engagements” is planned for the 2014 AAA meeting in DC and will take place at the local community space/restaurant/social justice bookstore Busboys and Poets. The event will foster conversations within and beyond political and legal anthropology, and will be followed by a reception and professional networking, hosted by the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology in honor of the Political and Legal Anthropology Review.

So, how can you get involved in APLA?  Here are some thoughts:  contact APLA officers to volunteer, attend the 2014 APLA business meeting and introduce yourself to APLA Board members, submit your work to PoLAR, consider becoming a digital editorial fellow, send posts of interest to APLA communications liaison Véronique Fortin, select APLA as the review section for your AAA paper and panel submissions, and offer to help with the graduate student workshops as a faculty member, speaker, or student organizer.  And then perhaps you too will find that APLA has become your intellectual home!


%d bloggers like this: