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Carol Greenhouse

An Introduction to the Work of Carol J. Greenhouse

By William A. Nixon * Posted May 1998

Professional Biography

Legal Anthropology

Key Works

References Cited/Bibliography


This brief introduction to the work of Carol J. Greenhouse is intended to help clarify, by illustration, the role that individual scholars play in shaping the discipline of anthropology. It is my hope that this document can be of use to graduate students who need background information on Greenhouse’s work as they study for comprehensive exams. Of course, it is impossible to summarize the achievements and significance of any scholar in so brief a format, let alone one who has published as much as Greenhouse. For those who require a greater degree of familiarity with Greenhouse’s work, I can only suggest recourse to her writing, most particularly Praying for Justice and A Moment’s Notice.

This document is divided into sections that address specific contextual issues pertinent to Greenhouse’s career, including a professional biography, an overview of the key developments in legal anthropology that provide the context for her first book Praying for Justice, an examination of the key issues raised by Carol J. Greenhouse’s work, and her bibliography.

Finally, I want to be absolutely clear that, while Carol J. Greenhouse graciously answered questions I had regarding her work, I bear complete and total responsibility for the contents of this document in its entirety. Greenhouse had no role in the creation of this text, and has neither approved nor disapproved, in any manner, of what I have written. Whatever inaccuracies or misstatements are contained herein are solely my own, and for which I apologize.

Professional Biography

Carol J. Greenhouse is a Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Indiana University, Bloomington, and holds joint appointments to the Departments of Speech Communication and Gender Studies. As of late spring 1998, Greenhouse was on sabbatical, and is scheduled to return to Indiana University in the fall of 1998.

Greenhouse attended Radcliffe College as an undergraduate, majored in anthropology, and received her B.A. in 1971. Greenhouse subsequently trained as a graduate student in anthropology at Harvard University, with a minor in law, and received her Ph.D. in 1976. From 1971 through 1975 she was the recipient of an NIMH Training Grant through Harvard’s Department of Anthropology. She was introduced to legal anthropology at Harvard by the late Klaus-Friedrich Koch, a legal anthropologist trained by Laura Nader, the prolific legal anthropologist with the University of California, Berkeley. Both Koch and Evon Z. Vogt served as Greenhouse’s advisors at various times during her studies, and she considers them both to be very important influences on her career in terms of their orientations toward anthropology, collegiality, teaching, and professional ethics (1998).

Greenhouse was an Instructor in the Department of Anthropology at Georgia State University in 1975 and for the Department of Anthropology at George Mason University in 1977. In addition, she worked as a research analyst for the United States Bureau of Social Science Research from 1976 through 1977. In 1977, Greenhouse joined the faculty of the Department of Anthropology at Cornell University as an Assistant Professor. From 1983 until her departure from Cornell in 1991, she served as an Associate Professor. In August 1991, Greenhouse joined the faculty of Indiana University, serving as Departmental Chair from 1995 through 1996. In 1995 she also served as a Visiting Scholar at Wolfson’s College, Cambridge University. She received her joint appointments to the Departments of Speech Communication and Gender Studies in 1997.

Greenhouse has published frequently during her academic career. For a listing of publications, please see the Bibliography at the end of this document. She has also contributed reviews to several journals, including: American Anthropologist, American Ethnologist, Anthropology Quarterly, Law and History Review, and Peasant Studies.

Greenhouse is currently editor-designate for American Ethnologist. In addition, she is a member of the editorial boards for the following journals: Droit et Cultures, Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies, Law & Policy, Law & Social Inquiry. She also a former member of the editorial board of Law & Society Review. Greenhouse has served as an occasional reviewer for American Anthropologist, Anthropological Quarterly, Cultural Anthropology, Law & Society Review, Studies in Law, Politics and Society; Cambridge University Press, University of Chicago Press, Columbia University Press, Cornell University Press, Duke University Press, University of Michigan Press, Princeton University Press, and the New Science Foundation.

Greenhouse is a member of the American Anthropological Association, the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology (a Division of the AAA), the Royal Anthropological Institute (IUAES), the Commission for the Study of Peace (co-chair, 1985-1987), American Ethnological Society, the Commission on Folk Law and Legal Pluralism (IUAES), the American Association of University Professors, and the Research Committee on the Sociology of Law (ISA). In addition, Greenhouse has had a long involvement with the Law and Society Association, and has held several positions in the organization. From 1996 through 1997, Greenhouse served as the President of the Law and Society Association. The significance of her interdisciplinary work with organizations such as the Law and Society Association is discussed below.

Legal Anthropology: Historical Context of Praying for Justice

It seems reasonable to state that Greenhouse is generally viewed in the discipline as a legal anthropologist, though it must also be acknowledged that her work is relevant beyond that somewhat artificial confine. Nevertheless, in order to understand Greenhouse’s contributions, we need to have an appreciation of key developments in legal anthropology prior to her scholarly career. My concern here is to provide the basic context from which we should evaluate her first work with Hopewell in the early 1970s, rather than providing an overview of legal anthropology per se [for such a short overview, click here].

While there is scholarly disagreement over the definition, broadly speaking, legal anthropology is the cultural study of social ordering. Sir Henry Maine is usually acknowledged as the founding ancestor of legal anthropology. In Ancient Law, published in 1861, Maine articulated a theory of the evolutionary development of law that placed all human societies on a chart of development. Within this range, Maine saw a fundamental distinction between societies in which legal rights and responsibilities rested on social status and those in which they rest on contractual agreements among individual. This distinction corresponds with an opposition between East and West, which in turn links to a distinction between religion and law. Importantly, Maine’s evolutionary schematic was critiqued by Bronislaw Malinowski in Crime and the Savage Society (1926), for resting on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of governance and social control in so-called primitive societies. Malinowski called instead for an ethnographic approach to the study of law through extended fieldwork.

Throughout the mid twentieth-century the case method, closely associated with such proponents as Max Gluckman and E. Adamson, was widely viewed on both side of the Atlantic to be the most feasible means for discovering the rules that govern a population. Embedded in the case method was the idea that, by highlighting the rules, reasons and rationales raised by a dispute, legal anthropologists gained access to the larger culture; these insights, in turn, made cross-cultural examinations of the law possible (Greenhouse 1986:28-29).

Key Issues Raised by Carol J. Greenhouse’s Scholarship

Carol J. Greenhouse’s decision in the early 1970s to live in “Hopewell,”a white, largely Baptist suburban town near Atlanta, Georgia, as an ethnographer of law, is remarkable in itself for two reasons. First, while the literature of legal anthropology had grown considerably over the previous decades, very little work was being done on law in the United States, or the western world in general, which seems odd in retrospect given the supposed prominence of legalism and law-mindedness in the United States. Moreover, American ethnography itself was at a standstill in the early 1970s, with some scholars doubting whether applying standard anthropological concepts to the United States was a worthwhile project (Greenhouse 1994: 15).

Greenhouse’s original goal, she explains in Praying for Justice, was to examine the use of the courts by the residents of Hopewell, focusing specifically on the Baptist community. She lived there between 1973 and 1975, attending church, interacting with church-based groups, befriending several church members, and studying the records of the local historical society. What she found, was that contrary to popular assumptions about American litigiousness, the citizens of Hopewell avoid the legal system as best they can as the primary mechanism for maintaining social order and resolving disputes. Instead, she found that the church, and particularly an individual’s personal relationship with Jesus Christ was far more important for the Baptists than the law. This insight caused her to shift her project from a study of the formal legal system to the “religious doctrine and praxis” of the Baptists, and especially their “ethic of avoidance in actual and potential conflict situations” (Greenhouse 1986: 23).

Through the moral lens of their faith, these Baptists do not accept the power of human agency to mediate the human condition, for only God can change the actual conditions of life (1986: 13). In the face of this sense of powerlessness, praying to Jesus for justice is the appropriate response to an actual or potential conflict, so that all conflict immediately becomes an inner conflict, and the only appropriate remedies are interior (1986: 73). The Baptists of Hopewell find scriptural inspiration for this stance on worldly conflict, particularly in Romans 13:19: “Avenge not yourselves. . . . I will repay, saith the Lord.” Hopewell’s Baptists have not eradicated their feelings of anger or overt conflict, but a fundamental aspect of their faith in Jesus is to refuse to act on these feelings (1986: 109). A compelling example of this faith can be seen in the Baptists’ approval of a decision by a local Methodist family that had been the victims of a double kidnapping to urge the state prosecutor to either dismiss or reduce the charges against the alleged kidnapers because the “salvation of the kidnappers was more important than their punishment” (1986: 79).

Greenhouse’s work in Hopewell has been a key contribution to the emergence of an ethnography of the law in the United States, and to the re-emergence of ethnography of America in general. Of fundamental importance is the way in which Greenhouse has illuminated the flaws inherent in the case method approach to legal anthropology and its focus on instances of conflict. By not focusing on cases, Greenhouse was able to perceive the underlying role of faith in conflict avoidance and the role of prayer in the day-to-day maintenance of order among the residents of Hopewell. By highlighting the role of religion in an American suburb, Greenhouse’s work implicitly refuted the traditional evolutionary approach to legal systems which saw a dichotomy between so-called primitive systems that rely on status and religion, and modern, western societies that rely upon contract and law. In addition, the role of the Baptist faith in shaping a distinctive, though not unique, system of maintaining order in Hopewell confirms the view that knowledge is local.

Greenhouse’s recent work has been of a more theoretical nature, serving to span the gap between legal anthropology and her home discipline, and using time and temporality as unifying concepts. In A Moment’s Notice, Greenhouse is concerned with how time is publicly constructed in different contexts, and with the related question of symbols and how they work. Greenhouse observes that time represents diverse logics of cultural and social management, and argues that social time has no reality apart from claims of legitimacy and accountability. Examining Ancient China, Aztec Mexico, and the contemporary United States, she focuses on how negotiable time concepts are in the institutional contexts in which those negotiations are embedded by dwelling on both the relevance of the institutional contexts of time negotiations and the implications of the fact that representations of time inevitably concern multiple temporal and social orders. Indeed, she believes that temporality is most successfully deployed as a matrix of political improvisation in contexts where challenges to authority are perceived to come in the form of diversity (Greenhouse 1996: 175). Looking to the future, Greenhouse foresees that the important issues for sociocultural anthropology will relate to the break-up of nation-states and the evolution of new transnational and regional units. She believes that these will have a wide range of effects, running from the personal and subjective, to the largest scales of human measure (Greenhouse 1998).


A final key aspect of Greenhouse’s work that I want to emphasize, and which concerns her professional involvements and affiliations as well as her scholarship, has been her long-term involvement in efforts to establish and maintain interdisciplinary approaches to scholarship. We can see this, for example, in her work with the Law and Society Association, and her decision to write for the Yale Law Journal-one of the most elite legal periodicals in the world, but also one that very few anthropologists read.

Greenhouse believes that the nature of legality and ethnography in the United States are well-suited to multiple perspectives and make for a rich interdisciplinary exchange, and she credits her involvement in interdisciplinary projects with helping shape her own views of anthropology. Greenhouse believes that the so-called boundaries around the disciplines are relics from a past time in the history of the academy. In particular, she maintains that ethnography has become, and should remain, an interdisciplinary practice (1998).

References Cited

1998 Electronic correspondence from Carol J. Greenhouse to author, dated May 4, 1998 (a copy of correspondence is on file with the author).

1996 A Moment’s Notice: Time Politics Across Cultures Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

1994 Law and Community in Three American Towns (with Barbara Yngvesson and David Engel) Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

1986 Praying for Justice: Faith, Order, and Community in an American Town Ithaca: Cornell University Press.


In press, ed., Democracy and Ethnography: Constructing Identities in Multicultural States

Albany: SUNY Press (also forthcoming in a Spanish version co-edited with Davydd Greenwood, Poder, Cultura y Representacion Madrid: UNED).

In press “Figuring the Future: Ethnographic issues of temporality, agency and scale” IN B.

Garth, F. Levine and A. Sarat, eds. Power and Justice in Sociological Studies Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

1997 “Jurisdictions” Preface to symposium in Droit et Cultures 33(1):7-14. Guest editor of symposium “Champs de compétence et minorités aux U.S.A.”

1997 “A federal life: Brown and the nationalization of the life story” IN Austin Sarat, ed., Race, Law, and Culture: reflections on Brown v. Board New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 170-189.

1996 A Moment’s Notice: Time Politics Across Cultures Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

1994 “Etnicidad y violencia en los Estados Unidos” IN Jose A. Fernández de Rota y Monter, ed. Etnicidad y Violencia Universidade de Coruña, pp. 195-204.

1994 “Constructive approaches” Law & Society Review 28(5): 1231-1241.

1994 “Demography and democracy” Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies 2(1): 21-29.

1994 Law and Community in Three American Towns (with Barbara Yngvesson and David Engel) Ithaca: Cornell University Press (co-winner of Law & Society Association book prize).

1994 “Watch the Woodchopper, Wait for the Fire: Hayden on Yugoslav Workers’ Courts” Law & Social Inquiry 19(1): 223-242.

1993 Co-guest editor (with Fons Strijbosch) “Legal Pluralism in Industrialized Societies” special issue of Journal of Legal Pluralism vol. 33.

1992 “Reading Violence” IN Law’s Violence, Austin Sarat and Thomas Kearns, eds. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, pp. 105-139.

1992 “Revisiting Hopewell: A reply to Neal Milner” Law & Social Inquiry 17(2): 335-350.

1992 “Racial and ethnic conflict: A commentary” IN Studies in Law, Politics and Society, vol. 12. Special issue on trends and opportunities in disputing research. Susan Silbey, ed. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, pp. 199-205.

1992 “Signs of quality: Individualism and hierarchy in American culture” American Ethnologist 19(2): 31-60.

1991 “Do the natives prefer Durkheim?” American Ethnologist 18(2): 366-369.

1989 “Hopeful masters: Cultural and legal pluralism in the United States” IN G. Gossen et al., eds. Ethnographic Encounters in Southern Mesoamerica: Essays in Honor of Evon Z. Vogt Austin: University of Texas Press, pp. 159-166.

1989 “Just in time: Temporality and the cultural legitimation of law” The Yale Law Journal 98(8): 1631-1651.

1989 “Dimensions spatio-temporelles du pluralisme juridique” Anthropologie et Sociétés 13(1): 35-52.

1989 “Interpreting American litigiousness” IN J. Starr and J. Collier, eds., History and Power in the Study of Law Ithaca: Cornell University Press, pp. 252-273.

1988 “Courting difference: Issues of interpretation and comparison in the study of legal ideologies” Law & Society Review 22(4): 687-707.

1987 “Cultural perspectives on war” IN R. Väyrynen, ed. The Quest for Peace Paris: International Social Science Council (UNESCO), pp. 32-47.

1986 Praying for Justice: Faith, Order, and Community in an American Town Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

1986 “History, faith and avoidance” IN Hervé Varenne, ed., Symbolizing America Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

1986 “Fighting for peace” IN M.L. Foster and R. Rubenstein, eds., Peace and War: Cultural Perspectives Transaction Books.

1985 “Mediation: A comparative approach” Man n.s. 20: 90-114.

1985 “Anthropologists at home: Whose home?” Human Organization 44(3): 261-264.

1983 “Being and doing: Competing concepts of elite status in an American town” IN George Marcus, ed., Elites Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

1982 “Looking for rules, looking at culture” Man n.s. 17: 58-73.

1982 “Nature is to culture as praying is to suing: Implications of legal pluralism” Journal of Legal Pluralism 20: 17-35.

1981 “Teaching and unteaching with legal anthropology” American Behavioral Scientist 25(1): 21-35.

1981 “Curriculum survey in legal and political anthropology” Association of Political and Legal Anthropologists Newsletter (occasional paper no. 4) 5(2): 1-14.

1979 “Avoidance as a strategy for resolving conflict in Zinacantan” IN K.-F. Koch, ed., Patterns of Conflict Management: Essays in Anthropology of Law, Access to Justice, Vol. IV, M. Cappelletti, gen. ed., Milan: Dot A. Giuffre Editore and Alphen aan den Rijn: Sijthoff and Noordhoff.

1979 (Collaborator; K.F. Koch, author) “On the tenth anniversary of the Paris ‘table talk’ dilemma: Some Thoughts” et cetera 35(4).

1976 “The Feasibility of feasibility testing” Bureau of Social Science Research Monograph no. 0508-1 Washington, D.C.


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