Legal Anthropology

Tobias Kelly

in Anthropology

ISBN: 9780199766567
Published online January 2012 | | DOI:
Legal Anthropology

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  • Anthropology
  • Human Evolution
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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.

Article.  7480 words. 

Subjects: Anthropology ; Human Evolution ; Medical Anthropology ; Physical Anthropology ; Social and Cultural Anthropology

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