International Law Anthropology and International Law
Gerhard Anders
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 February 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199796953-0164


Social and cultural anthropology, with its keen eye for the specificities of social life and cultural dynamics, has a lot to offer to the study of international law. A small but growing body of anthropological scholarship interrogates various aspects of the expansion of human rights discourse, the globalization of law, and international organizations. These studies offer an alternative perspective on international law, drawing on a rich tradition of ethnographic fieldwork in local social-cultural settings. The study of international law reflects a broadening of anthropologists’ scope. For a long time, anthropology had limited itself to the study of small-scale societies, but since the 1990s, anthropologists have entered the discussion about human rights and turned to the study of the international institutions and the effects of transnational legal processes. This turn has to be considered against the background of the long-running debate about the relationship between lawyers and anthropologists.

General Overviews

Anthropology and international law do not constitute a separate field or subdiscipline. Anthropology and legal studies are distinct academic disciplines, but there have been a number of attempts at interdisciplinary research. Twining 1973, Twining 2012 (pp. 153–169, cited under Lawyers and Anthropologists), and Nader 2002 present accounts of the successful collaboration between Karl Llewellyn, a prominent law professor, and E. Adamson Hoebel, an anthropologist, during the 1930s and 1940s. Since the turn of the 21st century, there has been a growing number of anthropologists studying international law and international institutions. This is a very young field for anthropological research that mainly draws on insights from legal anthropology. Merry 2006 is the authoritative general overview, exploring common ground between anthropology and international law. This account of the development of international law focuses on the role played by international law in European colonial expansion and the various legal systems regulating transnational economic activity. The author further examines the development of international human rights law since World War II and the rise of indigenous rights.

  • Merry, Sally Engle. “Anthropology and International Law.” Annual Review of Anthropology 35 (2006): 99–116.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.anthro.35.081705.123245Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This article outlines the structure of international law for an anthropological readership and discusses international law from an anthropological perspective. It presents an excellent overview of the anthropological literature on international law that complements the present literature review.

  • Nader, Laura. The Life of the Law: Anthropological Projects. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

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    The book presents an overview of the development of legal anthropology by one of the leading authorities in the field, drawing on personal experiences. Nader places special emphasis on the relationship between lawyers and anthropologists, discusses questions of power, and describes the shift in focus on dispute management in American legal anthropology.

  • Twining, William. “Law and Anthropology: A Case Study in Inter-disciplinary Collaboration.” Law and Society Review 7.4 (1973): 561–584.

    DOI: 10.2307/3052961Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This article explores the possibilities for interdisciplinary research between law and anthropology by examining the successful collaboration between Karl N. Llewellyn and E. Adamson Hoebel’s The Cheyenne Way (Llewellyn and Hoebel 1941, cited under Lawyers and Anthropologists).

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