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Legal anthropology


Legal anthropology, also known as the anthropology of laws, is a sub-discipline of anthropology which specializes in "the cross-cultural study of social ordering". The questions that Legal Anthropologists seek to answer concern how is law present in cultures? How does it manifest? How may anthropologists contribute to understandings of law?

Earlier legal anthropological research focused more narrowly on conflict management, crime, sanctions, or formal regulation. Bronisław Malinowski's 1926 work, Crime and Custom in Savage Society, explored law, order, crime, and punishment among the Trobriand Islanders. The English lawyer Sir Henry Maine is often credited with founding the study of Legal Anthropology through his book Ancient Law (1861), and although his evolutionary stance has been widely discredited within the discipline, his questions raised have shaped the subsequent discourse of the study. This ethno-centric evolutionary perspective was pre-eminent in early Anthropological discourse on law, evident through terms applied such as ‘pre-law’ or ‘proto-law’ and applied by so-called armchair anthropologists. However, a turning point was presented in the 1926 publication of Crime and Custom in Savage Society by Malinowski based upon his time with the Trobriand Islanders. Through emphasizing the order present in acephelous societies, Malinowski proposed the cross-cultural examining of law through its established functions as opposed to a discrete entity. This has led to multiple researchers and ethnographies examining such aspects as order, dispute, conflict management, crime, sanctions, or formal regulation, in addition (and often antagonistically) to law-centred studies, with small-societal studies leading to insightful self-reflections and better understanding of the founding concept of law.

Legal anthropology remains a lively discipline with modern and recent applications including issues such as human rights, legal pluralism, Islamophobia and political uprisings.

Legal Anthropology provides a definition of law which differs from that found within modern legal systems. Hoebel (1954) offered the following definition of law: “A social norm is legal if its neglect or infraction is regularly met, in threat or in fact, by the application of physical force by an individual or group possessing the socially recognized privilege of so acting”



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  • Ross F. (2003). “Using Rights to Measure Wrongs: A Case Study of Method and Moral in the Work of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission”. In: Wilson A., Mitchell J P. eds. Human Rights in Global Perspective. Anthropological Studies of Rights, Claims and Entitlements. London: Routledge, pp 163–182.
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