Legal Anthropology

Table of Contents


Legal anthropology is a field (in both law and anthropology) that emerged in the early 20th century. Historically it focused on how societies without courts, constable, or constitutions managed disputes. Just as anthropology used to focus exclusively on "exotic" peoples in remote locales, legal anthropology used to focus on "tribes" and "remote" and "isolated" cultures around the world. So, for example, a legal anthropologist might find themselves spending months in Northern Canada with Inuit communities trying to determine how that group used to settle disputes that would have been dealt with by criminal law (judges, lawyers, criminal codes, courts.) for non-Inuit Canada. For example, it has been pointed out several times in the literature that gossip, and banishment, used to operate as forms of social control amongst the Inuit.

Contemporary Legal AnthropologyBack to Top

Anthropologists in general are now more aware that the whole concept of "exotic", "remote" "isolated" others, frozen in time, tends to objectify and demean those people who used to regularly find themselves grist for the ethnographic mill. Anthropologists have increasingly turned their "ethnographic eye" - their acutely focused attention on how things work in society on a daily basis by observing patterns of human behavior directly - on the range of subcultures within the dominant society. It is not unusual now to find an anthropologist (metaphorical pith helmet on head) observing how the justice system REALLY works; or scrutinizing corporate culture and observing the most powerful players in society, along with those affected by their decisions and behavior, to determine how corporations REALLY work in society.

A contemporary legal anthropologist might, for example, find overlaps with the way that gossip used to work in Inuit communities and the way that the court of public opinion (in the form of the media, or internet sites like operates as a form of social control of major corporations by ordinary consumers.

WorksBack to Top

I am currently working on my third (and fourth) books about comparative law and legal anthropology.

My first book was Incorporating the Familiar: Investigating Legal Sensibilties in Nunavik. My second one is Mapping Marriage Law in Spanish Gitano Communities, which came out two days before the Rogers and Me story came to the attention of the national media in December of 2005.

I think it would be an interesting project for a legal anthropologist to turn his or her ethnographic eye upon corporate culture in Canada and its relationship with Canadian legal culture - to write a legal ethnography of Rogers and us.


Third BookBack to Top


I have a research grant from Canadian government to conduct ethnographic field research on mixed marriages within the mixed legal jurisdiction of Israel/Palestine. A sub-speciality in comparative law has begun to emerge in classic comparative legal studies over the last several years: jurisdictions such as Quebec, South Africa, Louisianna …and Israel, where both common law and civil law legal traditions co-exist. Israel presents a more complicated twist on mixed legal jurisdictions as in the domain of family law, Talmudic law, Islamic law, Christian law, and Druze law are also in play. I am interested in how individual couples and families intermarry across these legal traditions.


This research involves frequent travel to Israel/Palestine for the purposes of participant observation and carrying out ethnographic interviews. I have just begun to publish and disseminate material relating to my research agenda in conventional and less conventional venues of scholarly work.


My sabbatical year, which began on August 1, 2005, was to crown several preliminary years of doctrinal and bibliographic research on my topic.


Having a twelve year old son meant that I could not go and live in the Middle East throughout the course of my sabbatical, as I cannot take him out of school. So throughout the course of the 2005-06 academic year, I flew to Israel many times for short periods lasting anywhere between two to six weeks.


My Rogers-serviced cell phone does not work in the Middle East. I left it in Toronto when I left for Israel for a stint in July/August, 2005.

Fourth Book
Back to Top


Effectively the first third of my sabbatical year, from August 27 – December 17, 2005 was turned completely inside out by my debacle with Rogers Wireless Inc.


When I returned from being away on Friday August 26, I was intending to hit the ground running on Monday on my third book project, which I had planned to complete by the end of my sabbatical year.


Instead, I watched with horror as day after day, week after week, and month after month of my writing time was consumed by a never ending battle with Rogers Wireless.


Along with the “best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men,” sabbatical agendas “gang aft agley.”


It soon occurred to me to begin the preliminary research on my next fourth book:


Rogers and Me: The Legal EthnographyBack to Top

As a tenured university professor, I am expected to carry out academic research and publish the results of my investigations. Being a legal anthropologist by specialization, I am drawn to ethnographic investigations into overlaps with the way that gossip operates as a form of social control and the way that the contemporary court of public opinion operates as a form of informal legal constraint over major corporations.

The web site (and the nexus of legal issues with which it is entangled) strikes me as an excellent magnet for the ethnographic imagination could eventually generate Rogers and Me: The Legal Ethnography – an academic book which I believe I am fairly well positioned to write.

The driving justification for granting tenure to university professors is that such security prevents them from being dismissed for openly disagreeing with the authorities or prevailing opinion. The institution of academic tenure was consolidated in the 19th century to inoculate university professors from being removed at the pleasure of major donors sitting on the university’s board of trustees who might be offended by a professor’s writings on religious principles (very 19th century) or writings about powerful players and institutions in society (very 21st century and very perennial).

I am temperamentally well-disposed to transforming Rogers and Me: The All-Consuming Debacle into an academic publication given how much of it devoured my sabbatical year.

ReflexivityBack to Top


The fact that I would be both a participant and an observer in this project is a well known feature of ethnographic work.


Classical anthropologists indulged the whimsy that their presence, note pad in hand, had no impact on the community in which they worked. They were blithely incapable of projecting their imagination into the perspective of the community members who would routinely drop their routine activities to take note of this very odd fellow in a pith helmet and khakis, pipe drooping from the corner of his mouth, unsociably holed up in a tent at the edge of the community.


Classical anthropologists hail from a writing culture; one feature of this culture is the apparent incapacity of its members to perceive and resist the exotic proclivities of their background.


That the human observer also participates within and affects whatever human society or phenomenon he or she is observing is sufficiently well known in the ethnographic discipline that, as in academia generally, a new word has been coined to capture the phenomenon: reflexivity.


Being a reflexive ethnographer requires an acknowledgment that it is impossible to observe human societies while remaining a complete and detached outsider. The ethnographer has to examine both personally, epistemologically, and politically how the particular constitutive features of who he or she is modifies what will be uncovered, the stress that will be placed on particular features of the field rather than others, and how the research process also affects and changes the life and scholarly course of the ethnographer.


The reflexive ethnographer is compelled to acknowledge how he or she has changed the field and vice versa.


So, for example, a legal anthropologist studying the way that the court of public opinion interacts with corporate law and formal legal forums would have to be acutely attuned to how his or her persona and idiosyncratic background interacted with that particular field; and how experiences in the field ultimately reconstitute their very unique personal trajectory.


The link MSQP Press provides an example of a reflexive intervention with respect to this web site.


Legal Ethnographies