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Legal culture

Legal cultures are described as being temporary outcomes of interactions and occur pursuant to a challenge and response paradigm. Analyses of core legal paradigms shape the characteristics of individual and distinctive legal cultures. “Comparative legal cultures are examined by a field of scholarship, which is situated at the line bordering comparative law and historical jurisprudence.”

Legal cultures can be examined by reference to fundamentally different legal systems. However, such cultures can also be differentiated between systems with a shared history and basis which are now otherwise influenced by factors that encourage cultural change. Students learn about legal culture in order to better understand how the law works in society. This can be seen as the study of Law and Society. These studies are available at schools such as Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.

Western legal culture is unified in the systematic reliance on legal constructs. Such constructs include corporations, contracts, estates, rights and powers. These concepts are not only nonexistent in primitive or traditional legal systems but they can also be predominately incapable of expression in those language systems which form the basis of such legal cultures.

As a general proposition, the concept of legal culture depends on language and symbols and any attempt to analyze non-western legal systems in terms of categories of modern western law can result in distortion attributable to differences in language. So while legal constructs are unique to classical Roman, modern civil and common law cultures, legal concepts or primitive and archaic law get their meaning from sensed experience based on facts as opposed to theory or abstract. Legal culture therefore in the former group is influenced by academics, learned members of the profession and historically, philosophers. The latter group’s culture is harnessed by beliefs, values and religion at a foundational level.

Traditional law in Africa is based on natural justice and lacks abstract concepts. This is characteristic of cultures that have an absence of written language which is necessary to elaborate concepts into theory. The doctrines of traditional African law are based on social considerations whereby parties to disputes seek not declarations of right or wrong but rather they seek restitution of social relationships.

  • Albert H. Y. Chen ‘Socio-legal Thought and Legal Modernization in Contemporary China: A Case Study of the Jurisprudence of Zhu Suli’ (pp. 227–249) in Guenther Doeker-Mach and Klaus A. Ziegert (Eds.) (2004) Law, Legal Culture and Politics in the Twenty First Century (Franz Steiner Verlag: Stuttgart).
  • Banakar, Reza, “The Politics of Legal Cultures” in Retfærd: The Nordic Journal of Law and Justice (2008). An e-copy is available at:
  • Banakar, Reza, “Power, Culture and Method in Comparative Law” in International Journal of Law in Context, 2009 . An e-copy is available at:
  • Cotterrell, Roger (2006) Law, Culture and Society: Legal Ideas in the Mirror of Social Theory. Aldershot: Ashgate.
  • Cotterrell, Roger (2008) 'Comparative Law and Legal Culture' in Mathias Reimann and Reinhard Zimmermann (eds.) Oxford Handbook of Comparative Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Legrand, Pierre (1996) ‘European Legal Systems Are Not Converging’ in International and Comparative Law 45:52.
  • Legrand, Pierre (1997) ‘Against a European Civil Code’ in Modern Law Review 60: 44.
  • Legrand, Pierre and Munday, Roderick (2003) (eds.) Comparative Legal Studies: Traditions and Transitions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Legrand, Pierre (2003) ‘The Same and the Different’ in Legrand, Pierre and Munday, Roderick (eds.) Comparative Legal Studies: Traditions and Transitions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 240–311.
  • Menski, Werner (2006) Comparative Law in a Global Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1st edition 2000.
  • Monateri, Pier Giuseppe (2000) ‘Black Gaius. A Quest for the Multicultural Origins of the Western Legal Tradition' in Hastings Law Journal 51: 479 -555.
  • Nelken, David (2000) (ed.) Contrasting Criminal Justice: Getting from here to there. Aldershot: Ashgate/Dartmouth.
  • Nelken, David (2004) ‘Using the Concept of Legal Culture’ in Australian Journal of Legal Philosophy 29: 1–28.
  • Nelken, David (2007) ‘Culture, Legal’ in Clark, David S. (ed.) Encyclopedia of Law and Society: American and Global Perspectives. London: Sage, 369–374.


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