Landscapes of the Law: Injury, Remedy, and Social Change in Thailand

Law and Society Review, Vol. 43, No. 1, pp. 61-94, 2009

Buffalo Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2009-14

35 Pages Posted: 2 Jul 2009

Date Written: July 2, 2009


This article explains why, in a rapidly changing Asian society, tort law surprisingly plays a diminished role. Sociolegal theorists since Weber have postulated that state law operates by interacting with and responding to non-state legal orders. In Thailand, for much of the twentieth century the state law of torts interacted with and responded to a non-state customary law of injury and remediation. These two types of law were associated with two distinctive types of mapping that extended law across the Thai landscape. When European-based laws and legal institutions were first imposed by the emergent Thai state at the turn of the twentieth century, a then unprecedented form of mapping drew boundary lines around political spaces and applied new law codes uniformly throughout the jurisdictions thus enclosed. Such legal maps coexisted with a second type of customary mapping organized around sacred centers from which law radiated outward, diminishing in intensity and effectiveness with distance. The two maps were connected in the sense that injury victims sometimes invoked state law in order to enforce the norms and procedures of customary law.

This article, based on recent interviews with injured persons, lawyers, insurance agents, and others, examines the relationship between state and non-state laws during a period of dramatic social change at the turn of the twenty-first century. It suggests that recent transformations of Thai society have rendered ineffective the customary norms and procedures associated with the law of sacred centers. Since state law no longer interacts with or responds to customary law, ordinary people increasingly view Thai tort law as irrelevant. Litigation rates have fallen and injury victims can no longer envision any effective way to compel injurers to pay compensation.

Keywords: Thailand, Asian Law, Southeast Asia, comparative law, law and geography, law and anthropology, torts, globalization, legal pluralism, religion, Buddhism, karma

Suggested Citation

Engel, David M., Landscapes of the Law: Injury, Remedy, and Social Change in Thailand (July 2, 2009). Law and Society Review, Vol. 43, No. 1, pp. 61-94, 2009, Buffalo Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2009-14, Available at SSRN:

David M. Engel (Contact Author)

SUNY Buffalo Law School ( email )

415 O'Brian Hall
Buffalo, NY 14260-1100
United States

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