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Legal Systems Worldwide




Admissions requirements



This course explores the relation between law and culture – a topic that through globalisation, a perceived ‘clash of civilizations’, and the problems of increasingly multicultural societies has become quite prominent. The course will start with a discussion of different definitions of law and culture, before turning to the question of how modern law deals with cultural difference. This includes examining cultural defenses in criminal law, how judges understand litigants from their own cultural frame of reference, the recognition of indigenous rights, and the relation between human rights and culture. An important topic for discussion concerns the argument that human rights are a cultural construction and therefore cannot have universal validity, a point of view officially taken by the American Association of Anthropologists when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948 and increasingly relevant today.

The second part of the course approaches law as a cultural phenomenon. A first question for discussion is whether all human societies have law or whether law is something typical of modern states. We will also engage with the debate on the concept of ‘legal pluralism’.

Next, we will look at the prominent idea that law is a ‘mirror’ of society and consists of a ‘codification’ of cultural norms and values, where others by contrast argue that law is a powerful instrument to change culture. Or is law an instrument serving other goals, such as protecting the interests of elites?

Finally, we will look at the concept of legal culture, referring to the ideas people in a particular society have about law and how they use it. Legal culture may be a helpful concept in explaining for instance why English and American labour law have developed so differently, but also how Islamic law plays quite different roles in the French and the Indonesian legal system. From this exploration we will evaluate the usefulness of this concept and whether it is not too ‘blunt’ an instrument to assess legal systems and how they work.

The course combines legal with sociological/anthropological perspectives and uses a comparative approach, looking at topics across different states and societies. It will use ‘real life’ cases to clarify the theoretical issues raised, including many taken from developing countries.

Week 1
1.1: Introduction
Assignment of topics for reaction papers & presentations
1.2: The Cultural Defence
Week 2
2.1: Multiculturality in Civil Law
2.2: Universal Validity of Human Rights?
Week 3
3.1: Religious Law
3.2: The Rule of Law
Week 4
4.1: Legal Recognition of Culture
4.2: Legal Pluralism
Week 5
5.1: Obstructing Social Change
5.2: Promoting Social Change
Week 6
6.1: Law as a Reflection of Culture
6.2: Culture or Structure?
Week 7
7.1: Dispute Settlement 1
7.2: Dispute Settlement 2
Deadline for Submitting Final Essay
Week 8 Written examination: time and place to be announced

Course objectives

After successful completion of this course, students are able to:

  • compare different concepts of law and culture and describe how they relate;

  • discuss how modern legal systems deal with cultural issues and evaluate what the pros and cons of various such approaches are;

  • demonstrate basic skills of legal reasoning;

  • distinguish and debate different ways in which law can influence society and the other way round.


Once available, timetables will be published here.

Mode of instruction

The course uses a variety of teaching methods, including lecturing, student presentations, case resolving, class discussion and more ‘ formal’ debate. For each class the specific assignments and questions for preparation will be announced on Blackboard.


Group presentations, 15%, weeks 1-7;
In-class participation (including debates), 10%, weeks 1-7;
Three short reaction papers to week’s readings, 10%;
Final essay, 25%, week 7;
Final written examination, 40%, week8.


There will be a Blackboard site available for this course. Students will be enrolled at least one week before the start of classes.

Reading list

The literature for each seminar meeting will be placed on Blackboard, either a PDF-version or a reference to where it can be downloaded.


This course is open to LUC students and LUC exchange students. Registration is coordinated by the Curriculum Coordinator. Interested non-LUC students should contact


Dr. Adriaan Bedner,