SOAS University of London

Department of Anthropology and Sociology

Anthropology of Law

Module Code:
Module Not Running 2020/2021
FHEQ Level:
Year of study:
Year 1 or Year 2
Taught in:
Term 2

This course introduces students to the anthropological study of law.

  • Week 1. Introduction and course overview.
    In the first week a broad overview of the course will be provided. We will also discuss the ethical issues which arise in fieldwork and will read and discuss the Association for Social Anthropologists ethical guidelines for fieldwork. 
  • Week 2. Anthropology and primitive/customary law: reasoning, reasonableness and rules.
    This week we read and discuss early anthropological fieldwork which focused on ‘primitive’/customary law. A key point to emerge concerns both the limited scope of fieldwork (in non-western societies) and a problematic reliance on western theories and methods to understand what law means and how it functions in other cultures.
  • Week 3. Disputes and disputing.
    The principle focus of initial fieldwork/research focused on the history of an on-going (interpersonal) dispute which was analysed as an ‘extended case study’. We explore the  nature of such disputes and the insights and limitations of this approach to ‘law’.
  • Week 4. Methods: the limits of the case method and considerations for fieldwork
    The principle method used has, and remains, the collection and analysis of individual legal ‘cases’, an approach shared with Anglo-Saxon law. This week we explore the strength and limitations of this approach, consider wider theoretical concerns and begin practical preparation for fieldwork by looking at cases, how to record data, issues of access etc.
  • Week 5. Legal Pluralism
    In the 1970s anthropologists and others discovered that every society was subject to varying forms of law – traditional/customary, national, international etc – which infused the administration of justice. The problem was how to take this plural systems of law into account.
  • Week 6. Reading Week.
    At this time students will visit an Asylum & Immigration court, a Magistrate’s court and a Crown/criminal court with the convenor as a first step in selected their fieldwork site.
  • Week 7. Transnational Law.
    Increasingly the administration of justice at the local/national level has become enmeshed with growing international law – e.g. international refugee/humanitarian law, criminal law and terrorist legislation – which has emanated from the US and the United Nations. We consider the nature of this law and its operation in different contexts.
  • Week 8. Language and law – law as ideology.
    Law as text takes the form of contracts, statutes, judicial opinions etc. Law as a discourse reflects a very different use of language by the law as compared to the use of language by litigants/citizens in framing their dispute in court. Law as ideology refers to the normative (and political) underpinnings or assumption of law which define specific rights and responsibilities and the legitimacy and power of official institutions administering justice.
  • Week 9. Contextualizing the court.
    What are courts, and how should we theorize and approach them as anthropologists? This week we consider law as culture and the need for longitudinal studies of the courts and the need to situate our studies outside the court by looking at the wider socio-cultural and political context within which they operate and how they are understood and used by litigants.
  • Week 10. Legal actors: judges, officials, lawyers, litigants and experts.
    Legal institutions and the law need to be understood as a social process in which state officials, judges etc. need to be seen as social actors attempting to influence/use law and/or relevant government policy by seeking to influence the outcome of litigation and/or by exercising their ‘professional vision’ of the law and thus the outcome of litigation.
  • Week 11. Student presentations.
    Each student will make a 10 minute presentation in which they summarize their fieldwork in terms of research methods used, an assessment of the wider context of the court studied and its role in the administration of justice, and a preliminary look at their case study.


  • Students enrol via the online Module Sign-Up system.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

On successful completion of the course, a student should be able to demonstrate:

  • Knowledge of the history of anthropology’s engagement with, and understanding of, law;
  • Knowledge of major developments in anthropological theory and methods involved in the study of law;
  • An ability to assess and understand different approaches to studying law;
  • The ability to summarize, write and present material orally;
  • The ability to undertake limited fieldwork in a British court of law and to analyse and write up fieldwork to an acceptable standard.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules