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Within and Beyond the Anthropological Study of Law and Language

  • Location: Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Berlin, Germany

Dec 2018, Elizabeth Mertz

The intersection of law and language has been well-studied within legal anthropology, yielding a strong and vibrant ongoing body of theoretically sophisticated research.  Although this research speaks directly to questions that are important to legal scholars and often to policymakers, it – like much of anthropology – has yet to translate very effectively in the world of legal scholarship.  I examine that failure of translation from several perspectives.  First, I review anthropological research on language and law, noting its productive willingness to draw on diverse traditions to develop a holistic approach.  I then turn to analyze work on language and law within the legal academy, demonstrating that legal scholars have for some time held onto a preference for approaches that differ in systematic and non-trivial ways from anthropological ones. That largely unexamined preference has severely limited mainstream legal scholarship’s ability to comprehend how the languages of law actually work in practice.  It also encourages ideological distortion in legal analyses of language and generates accounts with little connection to the real world of law.  I conclude by considering these translation challenges in light of issues of language and power in the process of interdisciplinary translations.

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