Riding or Killing the Centaur? Reflections on the Identities of Legal Anthropology

Franz von Benda-Beckmann

in Law and Anthropology

Published in print November 2009 | ISBN: 9780199580910
Published online February 2010 | e-ISBN: 9780191723025 | DOI:

Series: Current Legal Issues

 Riding or Killing the Centaur? Reflections on the Identities of Legal Anthropology

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In his essay ‘Local Knowledge: Fact and Law in Comparative Perspective’, Clifford Geertz characterized anthropology of law as a ‘centaur discipline’, a hybrid in which anthropology and law, meaning legal science, were aggregated. ‘The interaction of two practice-minded professions so closely bound to special worlds and so heavily depending on special skills has,’ for Geertz, ‘yielded rather less in the way of accommodation and synthesis than of ambivalence and hesitation’. This led him to advocate a ‘somewhat disaggregative approach to things than has been common: not an attempt to join law . . . to anthropology . . . but a searching out of special analytical issues, that, in however different a guise and however differently addressed, lie in the path of both disciplines’. Geertz's diagnosis holds true for some but not all legal anthropological work. There is indeed much uncertainty and ambivalence about the relations between law, understood as academic discipline, and the social sciences dealing with law, especially anthropology and sociology. This colours the more specific relations between the subfields or specialties of legal anthropology and legal sociology. But, as the quote from Geertz suggests, a third problematic relation is the positioning of legal anthropology within general (social, cultural) anthropology. This chapter attempts to throw more light on these problematic relationships. It looks at the general historical development of this specific anthropological genre, which involves both the status of the genre, as ‘specialty, subfield, sub-discipline or topical label’, as well as its substance.

Keywords: anthropology of law; centaur discipline; legal anthropology; sociology

Chapter.  16771 words. 

Subjects: Comparative Law

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