Broadening the Legal Academy, the Study of Customary Law: The Case for Social-Scientific and Anthropological Perspectives

Keywords: Customary law, disputes, law in everyday life, social-scientific / anthropological perspectives, local law, legal pluralism, globalisation


This article explores the need for a more broadly based understanding of law, especially in the context of undertaking research in customary law. It examines the limitations of doctrinal legal scholarship involving a "black letter" approach to law, and discusses why more social-scientific and anthropological approaches are crucial for understanding what customary law entails. In doing so, it highlights the specific conditions under which people, especially women, have access to resources and how this shapes their power to negotiate with one another in daily life, as well as, in a legal forum. The article argues that such a perspective is not simply necessary to comprehend customary law, but should be applied more generally. This is in order to pursue an understanding of law in all its dimensions from negotiations in daily life, to alternative dispute forums and courts, in order to analyse and address the inequalities that arise in order to promote a more inclusive, non-discriminatory environment. Such a perspective is important in an age where law has a more global reach, extending beyond state boundaries and where what is local comes together with transnational, national and regional forces to provide an understanding of how external interventions become embodied with a diverse and localised set of meanings and practices, especially in an African context, that give rise to the uneven and varying effects of globalisation.

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Special Edition: Engaging with Customary Law