Elizabeth Mertz and Mark Goodale* 1 1.1 INTRODUCTION AND DEFINITIONS Legal Anthropology as a Subfield of Anthropology Like other subfields of sociocultural anthropology, the anthropology of law is an inherently comparative area of study. As the American Anthropological Association has explained, sociocultural anthropology examines ‘social patterns and practices across cultures, with a special interest in how people live in particular places and how they organize, govern, and create meaning’.1 The anthropology of law—also known as legal anthropology—focuses in particular on legal systems, law, and law-like social phenomena across cultures. In recent years, anthropology’s emphasis on ‘particular places’ has expanded to new kinds of locations (for example, virtual or global) in which human interaction now takes place. For legal anthropologists, this also entails attention to the many forms in which legal regulation occurs—from momentary encounters to interactions structured around institutions and texts. Like most social science fields, the anthropology of law embraces a variety of schools of thought regarding goals, theories, epistemologies and, sometimes, even methods. Scholars in this area nevertheless share a commitment to intensive and rigorous field methodologies requiring extensive involvement in the communities and social fields under study. The results of these studies frequently take the form of ‘ethnographies’, written reports of fieldwork that include substantial detail as to everyday practices and beliefs. In addition, legal anthropologists share another general foundational precept of their discipline, which requires that fieldworkers attempt to bracket their own categories and presumptions to some degree, so as to generate a...
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