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

  • Introduction
  • Public/Private Interlegalities
  • Oppositional and Alternative Democratic Pluralisms

Anthropology Legal Pluralism
Carol J. Greenhouse
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 March 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 July 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0217


Legal pluralism is a major theme for anthropologists concerned with law, and integral to anthropology’s fundamental concerns with the availability of law to sustaining cultural diversity as basic to the human condition. In its modern form, legal pluralism emerged as a scholarly field in the 1960s in exchanges among anthropologists and academic lawyers, first in Europe and later in North America, expanding worldwide with the development of sociolegal studies as a transnational interdisciplinary endeavor. The field has expanded along pathways traced by people’s demands for justice through law over time, as well as by institutional innovations in the state administration of justice, the organization of courts and legislatures, and other aspects of law confronting demands for cultural accommodation. At its inception as a scholarly field, legal pluralism dealt mainly with customary and indigenous rights in relation to the legal systems of colonial powers. Later, the field expanded as the classic research questions led back to the colonial powers themselves, and eventually to national states anywhere. In the early 21st century, the term refers to even wider horizons of inquiry, from the norms of private life to human rights law to the legal aspects of globalization, as these are diversely asserted and contested around the world. Whatever its referent, there is always an implication of law’s centrality to the experience of difference, and accordingly, to the inexhaustible possibility that law and society might be otherwise. While the field could at one time be associated with a discrete literature, this is no longer the case; legal pluralism is neither one conversation, nor one sole topic. It is a more or less borderless domain of inquiry for social scientists—especially sociocultural anthropologists—and academic lawyers, as they are separately or together engaged with the pragmatics of multicultural inclusion and the democratization of justice through law. The bibliography is selectively focused around zones indicated by those engagements, sometimes reaching beyond scholarship explicitly identified with literature on legal pluralism. The subtopics developed here merit separate treatment in themselves. The bibliographic discussion presents classic sources, subsequent debates, and applications as developed mainly by anthropologists. Beyond the opening section on classics, this article leans toward the future—focusing primarily on current work by anthropologists, and secondarily on that by legal scholars among others, aiming for a selection that conveys the substance and stakes of current debates, while sampling international scholarship. It inevitably includes but a small selection of the many country and regional studies of legal pluralism currently in print as monographs and articles. It does not include historical studies, notwithstanding their intrinsic interest for readers interested in legal pluralism. It is by no means a comprehensive account of people’s demands for rights and recognition.

General Overview

The theme of legal pluralism entered anthropology from law, and it now circulates widely as a vibrant arena where anthropology, law, and other social science disciplines meet in theory and practice. For anthropologists, core issues include the means, ends, and stakes in people’s access to justice through law among other arenas (including private personal relationships). Anthropological studies of legal pluralism present a long spectrum of state and nonstate situations, from intimate to very public, and from local to global. For lawyers, meanwhile, legal pluralism tends to refer to state and international arrangements—blending with questions of conflicts of law, comparative law and jurisdiction, subnational autonomy, supranational harmonization, and alternative globalizations. Legal and anthropological inquiries are interrelated especially in circumstances where legal pluralism has developed as protection for minority communities, or as a polycentric institutional form reflecting a deliberate distribution of state powers. Classically, legal pluralism arises for both law and social science with state accommodations to multiculturalism. However, legal pluralism develops for many reasons besides cultural accommodation—for example, in war, trade, privatization and “contracting out,” detention, and asylum, among other situations generating new forms of legal pluralism today. These newer “constellations” of legal pluralism (“constellation” being a term borrowed from Franz von Benda-Beckmann) are discussed in this section, as features of contemporary legal landscapes.

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