Writing Legal Lives


Writing Legal Lives was a one-day workshop held at the Center for History and Economics at Harvard University on 21 September 2019. It was organized by Catherine Evans, Kalyani Ramnath and Fei-Hsien Wang. Participants explored different approaches to writing legal lives, writing legal histories of individuals and communities, and the limits to legal life writing. The conversations centered on the nineteenth and twentieth century accounts of people, places and things that they initially encountered through legal records. They also focused on substantive, methodological and ethical dilemmas that they had faced as historians, researchers and interlocutors.

Participants began with several guiding questions, including the following:

•   What are the benefits and pitfalls of writing legal history through the lives of individuals? What kinds of questions does a deliberately “peopled” account of law raise for legal historians? How is this method particularly useful in exploring transnational, imperial, global and/or non-Western legal histories?

•   What are the boundaries among biography, prosopography and other approaches to life writing, if any? Does the question of whose life (or whose lives) we're narrating change how we describe our approach? For instance, is a biography of a judge fundamentally different from a biography of a criminal, a sea captain, or a colonial lawyer?

•  What are the limits, if any, of “law”? Does a person's “legal” life include encounters with administrative, bureaucratic, carceral and/or political processes and institutions, or should we limit the realm of the “legal” to courtrooms and lawyers' offices? What is the difference, if any, between writing a “legal” life and writing a life?

•  Is there anything new in a “writing legal lives” approach? Is there a better way to describe what we're doing, and/or are 'we' doing anything collectively at all? Which scholars and scholarly approaches inspire us? Are we doing something new, bringing back something old, or simply continuing an existing tradition?

The objective was not to arrive at a singular definition of a legal life, but to generate several different approaches to legal life writing. The participants worked on a diverse range of topics in the context of different imperial and post-imperial geographies, which was an added strength of the workshop programme.

The discussions raised several additional themes:  

•  Initial encounters with legal records, particularly the form of the legal “case” and how this shaped the narratives that they subsequently wrote; the promise and pitfalls of writing narrative history via cases.

•  The practical and ethical challenges posed by encountering people in ostensibly “public” legal archives, and consequently tracking down private papers, oral histories, photographs and other forms of “private” archives; how to braid insights from the two; obligations to interlocutors

•  The interpretation of legal language, lines between truth and lie, fact and fiction; understanding legal language as performance (in public trials), normative vocabulary (in reporting, commentary etc.) or as commodity (in the context of transitional justice mechanisms)

•  The writing of multi-sited history, multilingual sources, particularly in the context of imperial or diasporic histories, writing about identities that are forefronted or erased as people move from one place to another; nostalgia, legacy, memory

•  The enmeshed past and present of writing legal lives, obligations to the dead and the living, maintaining anonymity, humility in writing about intimate or “illegal” lives, writing lives as fragments and ruptures, differences/parallels with biography; looking beyond legal lives to “actual” lives


Participants and Programme:

Writing Legal Lives
Saturday 21 September 2019
Room 354, CGIS South Building (1730 Cambridge Street)

9am – Welcome

9:15am – 11:00am – Session 1: Approaches to Legal Life Writing 

Rohit De 
“Representing the Other Race: Achroo Kapila and the Making of an Asian African Lawyer”

Franziska Exeler 
“Writing a Microhistory of a Soviet War Crimes Trial. Chernihiv, November 1947”

Catherine Evans 
“A Bad Detective: The Limits of Police Authority in Nineteenth-Century Canada”

Nurfadzilah Yahaya 
“The Holy Rail Conundrum—Religious, Colonial and National Sovereignty Over the Hejaz Railway”

11:00am – 11:15am: BREAK

11:15am – 1:00pm: Session 2: Collective Legal Lives 

Rudolph Ng 
“From Contracts to Depositions: Reconstructing the Lives of Coolies in Nineteenth-Century Latin America”

Diana Kim
“The Ones Who Disappeared”

Tatiana Borisova
“Peopled" account of law in late imperial Russia by Justice Anatolii Koni (1844-1927)” 

Fei-Hsien Wang 
“Playing the Game of Nationality: Reclaiming European Properties in Post-World War II China”

1:15pm – 2:30pm: LUNCH

2:30pm – 3:45pm: Session 3: The Limits of Legal Life Writing 

Julia Stephens 
“Picking the Pockets of the Dead: A Reflection on the Ethical Dilemmas of Writing Legal Lives”

Anne O Donnell
“Forgetting the Russian Revolution: Property, Time, and the Dismantling of the Legal Self in the RSFSR, 1920-1922”

Kalyani Ramnath
“Umbichi Haji’s Last Wishes: Confronting the Limits of Legal Life Writing”

3:45pm – 4:00pm: BREAK

4:00pm – 4:45pm: Final Group Discussion