The Normative Anthropologist

16 Pages Posted: 6 Apr 2022

See all articles by Matthew S. Erie

Matthew S. Erie

University of Oxford; University of Oxford - Centre for Socio-Legal Studies

Date Written: February 28, 2022


In recognition of the real and perceived differences between law and anthropology and in particular the conception the former has of the latter, this essay attempts an interdisciplinary translation as a form of fine-tuning the relationship, with a particular focus on the study of formal law. Whereas law holds itself to be normative and universal, it perceives anthropology to be descriptive and relativistic. This analogy follows from actual movements within anthropology, movements that are, to some extent, in the discipline’s rear-view mirror. Yet, the legal academy continues to locate anthropology in a certain tradition despite advancements in the field over the past several decades. I address this problem with recourse to the alleged division of intellectual labor between the disciplines, namely, the idea that lawyers construct normative arguments of universal application while anthropologists are concerned chiefly with relativizing descriptions. Primary questions follow: What do lawyers mean by “normative”? What may anthropologists mean by this term? And, what, in the anthropological analysis, is the relationship between description and normativity, and, by extension, can ethnography be normative? This essay finds that, first, anthropology’s perceived lack of normativity is one of the major obstacles to anthropology’s greater influence in law, and, second, that anthropological reasoning may also be normative, although in ways that stay true to the core tenets of the discipline. Moreover, greater attention to the anthropology of formal law, description as normative, alternative normativities, critique, and collaboration may open up more fruitful engagement between the disciplines.

Keywords: law and anthropology; interdisciplinarity; normativity; translation

JEL Classification: K00

Suggested Citation

Erie, Matthew Steven, The Normative Anthropologist (February 28, 2022). Alabama Law Review, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN:

Matthew Steven Erie (Contact Author)

University of Oxford ( email )

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University of Oxford - Centre for Socio-Legal Studies ( email )

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