Understanding Legal Pluralism: Past to Present, Local to Global

Sydney Law Review, Vol. 29, 2007

St. John's Legal Studies Research Paper No. 07-0080

64 Pages Posted: 3 Sep 2007 Last revised: 15 Aug 2008

See all articles by Brian Z. Tamanaha

Brian Z. Tamanaha

Washington University in St. Louis - School of Law


Although it has not yet penetrated mainstream legal academia, the notion of legal pluralism is gaining momentum across a range of law-related fields. It has been a major topic in legal anthropology and legal sociology for about two decades, and is now getting attention in comparative law and international law. This recent convergence on the notion of legal pluralism is fueled by the apparent multiplicity of legal orders, from the local level to global level. There are village, town, or municipal laws of various types; there are state, district or regional laws of various types; there are national, transnational, and international laws of various types. In addition to these familiar bodies of law, in many societies there are more exotic forms of law, like customary law, indigenous law, religious law, or law connected to distinct ethnic or cultural groups. There is also an evident increase in quasi-legal forms, from private policing and private judging, to privately run prisons, to the ongoing creation of the new lex mercatoria, a body of transnational commercial law that is almost entirely the product of private law making activities.

These multiple, often uncoordinated, coexisting or overlapping bodies of law may make competing claims of authority; they may impose conflicting demands or norms; and they may have different styles and orientations. This potential conflict generates uncertainty or jeopardy for individuals and groups in society, who cannot be certain in advance which legal regime will be applied to their situation. It also creates opportunities for individuals and groups to strategically invoke or pit one legal order against another.

This article will lay out a framework to help examine and understand the pluralistic form that law increasingly takes today. Legal pluralism, it turns out, is a common historical condition. Part I of this article will portray the rich legal pluralism that characterized the medieval period, and it will describe how this pluralism was reduced in the course of the consolidation of state power. The article will then elaborate on new forms of legal pluralism that were produced in the course of colonization. These historical contexts will set the stage for contemporary legal pluralism, which combines the legacy of this past with more recent developments connected to the processes of globalization.

Part II of the article will focus on the academic discussion of legal pluralism. Although the notion of legal pluralism is gaining popularity, from its very inception it has been plagued by a fundamental conceptual problem: the difficulty of defining "law." Debates over this conceptual problem have continued unabated for three decades. Moreover, just as the notion of legal pluralism has begun to take off, the theorist who contributed the most to its development announced that, owing to its insoluble conceptual problems, legal pluralism should be discarded. This turnabout is a fascinating intellectual story in itself. Part II will lay out a brief account of the conceptual problem that plagues legal pluralism and will indicate why it cannot be resolved. Scholars who invoke legal pluralism without an awareness of this conceptual problem and its implications risk building upon an incoherent and unstable foundation.

Finally, Part III will articulate an approach to contemporary legal pluralism that avoids the conceptual problems suffered by most current approaches, while framing the important features of legal pluralism. It is drawn from and combines the insights produced in legal anthropology, comparative law, international law, and globalization studies, in the hope that the framework can provide common ground for a cross-disciplinary focus on legal pluralism.

This article was delivered as the 2007 Julius Stone Address at the University of Sydney School of Law.

Suggested Citation

Tamanaha, Brian Z., Understanding Legal Pluralism: Past to Present, Local to Global. Sydney Law Review, Vol. 29, 2007, St. John's Legal Studies Research Paper No. 07-0080, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1010105

Brian Z. Tamanaha (Contact Author)

Washington University in St. Louis - School of Law ( email )

Campus Box 1120
St. Louis, MO 63130
United States

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