In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Legal Anthropology

  • Introduction
  • Classic Accounts
  • Disputing
  • Legal Pluralism
  • Law and Colonialism
  • Law and Violence
  • Citizenship and Migration
  • Law and Language
  • Law and Islam
  • Law and Indigeneity

Anthropology Legal Anthropology
Tobias Kelly
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0049


Legal practices, processes, and claims are among the most powerful forces that shape our lives. Legal anthropology has historically tried to understand the relationship between legal processes and other aspects of social, cultural, economic, and political life as well as the meanings and implications of legal practices on their own terms. It is arguable that, at its 19th-century origins, anthropology was the product of legal concerns, as scholars tried to understand what made 19th-century Europe and North America seemingly so different from other times and other places. For many of these scholars, law was a key point of difference. Yet, much anthropology in the 20th century implicitly challenged such rigid and implicitly evolutionary distinctions. In particular, anthropologists tried to show how other cultures had “lawlike” institutions that were as complex and reasonable as those of Western law. In the mid-20th century, in the search for lawlike processes, anthropology settled on disputes as the basic unit of comparison. This move saw a relative decline in wider interest in legal anthropology, as the analysis tended to produce endless studies of small-scale decision making. In the late 1980s, however, a general resurgence in legal anthropology occurred. This was marked, in large measure, by a shift from studying processes that seemed lawlike to a focus on self-consciously legal procedures. That shift can broadly be understand as a move from legal anthropology to the anthropology of law, in which the object of study is those institutions, processes, and concepts that have their roots in (but are not limited to) “Western liberal law.” Anthropologists have therefore increasingly turned their attention to issues such as human rights, property, and citizenship. This, of course, has not ruled out the analysis of alternative legal orders—for example, what is taken to be Islamic law—but these are not usually studied as isolated cultural processes.


There is a general lack of up-to-date overviews, but there are a number of works that can serve as introductions to the history of legal anthropology and its concerns. Fuller 1994, Moore 2001, and Just 1992 are good review essays, yet are all becoming outdated. Lazarus-Black and Hirsch 1994 and Starr and Collier 1989 are two useful collections of essays that demonstrate the renewed interest in legal anthropology that came about in the late 1980s; in particular, they show the importance of an appreciation of power relations in the analysis of legal processes. Mundy 2002 and Moore 2005 are comprehensive readers, with the former focusing on more recent essays, and the latter giving a historical overview.

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