Faculty Highlights: Annelise Riles

Professor of Law -- Cornell Law School

Professor of Anthopology -- College of Arts and Sciences

Of course, Chinese would be one of the languages she speaks -- but Fijian too? Well, why not?

Photo of Faculty Highlights: Annelise Riles

Faculty Highlights: Annelise Riles

It takes about five minute in the company of Annelise Riles, the director of the Clarke Program on East Asian Law and Culture at Cornell Law School, to realize she thrives on contrast and loves to experiment with unlikely pairings.

A professor of law and of anthropology -- disciplines that only seem polar opposites -- Riles is tall and stylish, with a shining smile and eyes that directly engage you, especially when she's talking about her unusual blend of interests. "I've always been a person pulled in opposing directions," she says. "I get a kind of charge out of functioning in two worlds that seemingly have no relationship with each other." Her greatest skill: being able to persuade others that there's much to be gained from such pairings.

She fell in love with anthropology at the London School of Economics and at the University of Cambridge. At Harvard Law School, she was fascinated to see how justice was shaped by cultural practices. But all of that was prelude to her sitting in a coffee shop in Fiji and reinventing the cross-disciplinary field of cultural law.

You can almost picture her arriving in 1994 at the steaming United Nations hub office in the tiny South Pacific Ocean nation, explaining that she has come from Cambridge University to do her doctoral dissertation research in international law. "There's no international law here -- go home," she's told. Instead, she stops at the coffee shop to regroup and, serendipitously, meets a multiracial group of women putting out a newsletter for a nongovernmental organization (NGO). To an anthropologist, every opportunity is fieldwork, so she rolls up her sleeves and ends up helping five networks of women prepare for the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. "It took me a while, but eventually I saw that those kinds of efforts might be international law too," says Riles.

Her involvement leads to her first book, The Network Inside Out (University of Michigan Press, 2001). Filled with such documents as NGO newsletters, funding proposals, organizational charts and other items that Riles terms "artifacts," the book looks at "the ethnography of legality" -- her term. It wins the best book prize from the American Society of International Law for rethinking just what constitutes international law.

An anthropological take on modern law isn't so far-fetched, says Riles. "Where do we need to be sensitive to different groups' reckoning of justice? It comes up all the time." She cites cases of sexual harassment, where the accused and the accuser see the same behavior in different ways, court cases where justice is compromised because non-English-speaking defendants hear and are heard only through interpreters, and cases where people's cultural backgrounds color their understanding of the law.

Riles, who joined the Law School and Department of Anthropology faculty at Cornell in 2002, says that being a member of two departments is "a lot of work but also exciting because you're exposed to different ideas, and what seems intractable to one group may be easy to the other."

Law Professor Mitchel Lasser, who co-teaches the course Comparative Law with Riles, says: "She's a total whirlwind of organization, activity and a fantastic resource for the students, the school and Cornell." There's a perpetual line of people outside her door because "she's one of a kind. She can work fluently with East Asian material, while bringing extremely sophisticated perceptions in comparative law that are fully informed by the highest level of anthropological practice."

"Annelise Riles is, in a word, a dynamo," says law student Timothy Webster, who is interested in Asian law. "In the classroom, her interdisciplinary training allows her to illuminate the law in ways few professors are able: as one fragment of a much larger social, cultural, theoretical and philosophical fabric."

Says Webster: "The Clarke program was one of the reasons I chose to come to Cornell." As director of the Clarke program, Riles seek answers to questions on international law that are not resolved in typical law casebooks, Webster says. The program runs luncheon colloquia on such intriguing subjects as "Legislating Hollywood's Chinatown," sponsors conferences on unique topics like "Cultural Approaches to Asian Financial Markets" and brings to campus visiting scholars and speakers, in collaboration with the East Asia Program, the Society for the Humanities and others. "The range of speakers is nothing short of astounding: academic luminaries in Asian law; detective-fiction writers from Japan; anthropologists of every stripe; top-flight international lawyers from New York," says Webster.

A prolific writer and tireless conference presenter, Riles currently is working on a book called Documents: Bureaucratic Authorship, Academic Collaboration, Ethnographic Response, which looks at the piles of papers on people's desks through an anthropological lens. "Documents are the material quality of law itself," she says. "We tend to think about all the effort that goes into creating them as passive, but it's actually creative."

She recently completed a paper with Ravi Kanbur, a Cornell professor in applied economics and management, in which they re-examine "the Commons," an economic theory that property belonging to everybody is inefficient. Riles' view: "Anthropologists think common ownership has positive social effects beyond plain old economics."

For work and fun, Riles travels a lot -- she'll teach again at the Law School/Sorbonne Summer Institute of International and Comparative Law in Paris this July. An "architecture fanatic," she will visit Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. She reads novels -- the latest one is Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore. And she gives dinner parties. Says Riles, "I really like getting together very different people and sparking interesting conversations." You never know what cross-pollination of ideas they might inspire.