Anya Bernstein


Research Focus: Administrative Law, Asian Legal Cultures, Federal Jurisdiction, Law and Society, Law and the Sociology of Knowledge

Links: Curriculum Vitae, SSRN


Contact Information

624 O'Brian Hall, North Campus
Buffalo, NY 14260-1100
Phone: 716-645-3683

Faculty Assistant: Anita M. Gesel

Anya Bernstein studies the cultural aspects of bureaucracies and courts, the government institutions that implement and interpret the law. Bernstein approaches these institutions both as social arenas of their own and as nodes embedded in wider social worlds. She is particularly interested in how bureaucrats and judges in democratic polities justify themselves to their diverse audiences. Although we sometimes take the legitimacy of democratic governance for granted, her work suggests that legitimacy is not something that inheres in a particular political form; it's a dynamic, culturally specific outcome of continuous work by numerous participants. Understanding how law and governance function in a democracy thus requires examining how participants understand, describe, and ultimately shape them. She does that through ethnography, interview, and textual analysis. One strand of her work interrogates the communicative processes that underlie judicial interpretations of law; it illuminates how cultural assumptions both structure and obscure judicial practices. Her other primary line of research asks how government bureaucrats relate with their multiple interlocutors, and how they contribute to the creation of a recognizable democratic state. Ethnography and interview help's her treat bureaucracies not as monolithic institutions filled with interchangeable cogs, but as social worlds full of culturally embedded human agents. Her approach illuminates how bureaucrats themselves understand -- and construct -- the legitimacy of governance. 

Bernstein holds a J.D. from Yale Law School and a Ph.D. in sociocultural anthropology from the University of Chicago. She is currently engaged in research involving interviews with administrators in the US (in collaboration with Cristina Rodriguez of Yale Law School) and in Taiwan (where she has also done ethnographic fieldwork). Bernstein plans to expand the project to Germany. It's easy to think of some things—bureaucracy, legitimacy, interpretation—as taking the same form across democracies. Bringing her anthropological training to bear on my legal research, she illuminates the local specificity behind any claim to universality. 

Bernstein’s work has been (or will soon be) published in The University of Chicago Law ReviewThe William and Mary Law ReviewThe Yale Journal on RegulationLaw and Social Inquiry, The Indiana Law Review, and PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review, among others. Before coming to Buffalo, she worked as a law clerk to Judge Guido Calabresi on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals and a Bigelow Fellow and Lecturer in Law at the University of Chicago Law School.