Law in Society: A Joint Course in Law and Anthropology

This information is for the 2016/17 session.

Teacher responsible

Prof Robert Pottage NAB 7.21


This course is compulsory on the MSc in Law, Anthropology and Society. This course is available on the MSc in Human Rights, MSc in Regulation and Master of Laws. This course is available with permission as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit.

Course content

The course offers a foundation in those elements of anthropological and social theory essential to an understanding of law in society. This course draws on anthropological themes and texts to develop an innovative perspective on contemporary legal norms and institutions. It aims to document legal institutions and practices as concrete ethnographic phenomena, focusing on the techniques of writing and documentation, the legal production of persons and things, and the legal framing of institutions. It combines abstract social theory with concrete ethnographic method in the study of ritual, kinship, property and communicative technologies in formal law.


The course may include the following topics: Law, anthropology, and the production of the social: an introduction to the links between legal and anthropological scholarship, exploring juridical concepts of power, agency and social personality and anthropology's models of society; Legal and political ritual: selected theoretical analyses of modern legal ritual examined against the background of anthropological debates concerning the general nature of ritual; The communication of power in writing: the representation and construction of social institutions in administration; Legal time and evidence: ethnographic analysis of narrative, evidence and proof in different legal cultures; Persons and things: legal forms of personification and objectification in systems of ownership and inheritance, with particular attention to the law governing reproductive resources; Legal collectivities, the modern corporation and its others: ethnographies of the social and legal construction of collective agency; The uses of anthropology in law and politics: the role of anthropology in contemporary contests over indigenous title, cultural property, common property resources, and alternative dispute resolution.


22 hours of seminars in the MT. 22 hours of seminars in the LT. 2 hours of seminars in the ST.

There will be a reading week in week 6 of MT. 

Indicative reading

Bruno Latour, The Making of Law, 2009, Niklas Luhmann, Observations on Modernity, 1998 and Law as a Social System, 2004 ; Sally Engle Merry, Getting Justice and Getting Even: Legal Consciousness Among Working-Class Americans, 1990; Brinkley Messick, The Calligraphic State: Textual Domination and History in a Muslim Society, 1993; Martha Mundy (Ed), Law and Anthropology, 2002; W T Murphy, The Oldest Social Science?, 1997; Leopold Pospisil, Anthropology of Law: A Comparative Theory, 1971; Alain Pottage and Martha Mundy (eds.), Law, Anthropology and the Constitution of the Social: Making persons and things, 2004; Elizabeth Povinelli, The Cunning of Recognition, 2002; Roy Rapapport, Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity, 1999; Annelise Riles, The Network Inside Out, 2000, and Collateral Knowledge. Legal Reasoning in Global Financial Markets, 2011; Simon Roberts & John Comaroff, Rules & Processes, 1983; Simon Roberts, Order and Dispute, 1973; Marilyn Strathern, Property, Substance & Effect: Anthropological Essays on Persons and Things, 1999 and Kinship, Law and the Unexpected, 2005; Alain Supiot, Homo Juridicus: On the anthropological function of the law, 2007; Gunther Teubner (Ed), Global Law Without a State, 1997.


Exam (100%, duration: 3 hours, reading time: 15 minutes) in the main exam period.

Key facts

Department: Law

Total students 2015/16: 16

Average class size 2015/16: 16

Controlled access 2015/16: Yes

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

  • Communication
  • Specialist skills