Anthropology and Law

Anthropology and Law

Anthropology and Law

Anthropology and Law


The relationship between Law and Anthropology can be considered as having been particularly intimate. In this book the authors defend their assertion that the two fields co-exist in a condition of "balanced reciprocity" wherein each makes important contributions to the successful practice and theory of the other. Anthropology, for example, offers a cross-culturally validated generic concept of "law," and clarifies other important legal concepts such as "religion" and "human rights." Law similarly illuminates key anthropological ideas such as the "social contract," and provides a uniquely valuable access point for the analysis of sociocultural systems. Legal practice renders a further important benefit to anthropology when it validates anthropological knowledge through the use of anthropologists as expert witnesses in the courtroom and the introduction of the "culture defense" against criminal charges.

Although the actual relationship between anthropology and law today falls short of this idealized state of balanced reciprocity, the authors include historical and other data suggesting that that level of intimate cooperation draws ever closer.


The release of ANTHROPOLOGY & LAW in paperback allows us a rare occasion to reflect on the text and its reception by its intended audiences. As perhaps all authors experience, we are able to identify sections that continue to read as we intended, as well as others that, in retrospect, we might have written otherwise. Those latter realizations are pleasingly few.

We can address most concerns that have come to our attention through clarification of a central theme of the book—the distinction between “anthropology and law” and “legal anthropology.”

The backbone of the book, in terms of both content and structure, is what we have termed “balanced reciprocity,” defined as a condition wherein “neither discipline is independent of, parasitic upon, or subordinate to, the other. Anthropology, to fully realize its own vision, needs a collateral discipline of jurisprudence; law, in order to achieve its goal of justice and social order, requires the theoretical grounding and empirical conclusions of anthropology” (p. 2). This thesis of balanced reciprocity perhaps formalizes the impression of other anthropologists who study legal institutions, among them Laura Nader who has argued “for separate but equal arenas: we do different things. We have much to learn from each other, but if we try to do each other’s work, the work suffers from out naïveté and inexperience” (Laura Nader, THE LIFE OF THE LAW: ANTHROPOLOGICAL PROJECTS [2002]). To our knowledge no one has disputed the desirability of this respectful cooperation between the peer disciplines, although there has been reasonable disagreement over our book’s success in realizing its own aspirations in this regard.

At the same time, some reviewers have criticized what appear to their eyes as a disconcerting lack of citation to, and discussion of, the fundamental literature of legal anthropology. We can concede that illustrative examples other than those we chose could have served our didactic pur-

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