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Legal Systems Worldwide




Admissions requirements



This course explores the relation between law and culture – a topic that has gained prominence through increasing globalisation, a supposed ‘clash of civilizations’, and the problems associated with multicultural societies. 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 defences in criminal law, how judges understand litigants from their own cultural frame of reference, the interaction between local and international property regimes, the ‘translation’ of laws, 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 criticism already made when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948.

The second part of the course looks at 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 look closely at the debates about ‘legal pluralism’ which draws on early work by Bronislaw Malinowski and that of other early legal anthropologists. It helps us to gain a better understanding of law in action. Here we will also discuss the role of religion as a normative order.

Next, we will look at the prominent idea that law is a ‘mirror’ 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? From this exploration we will try to see to whether the concept of culture has much explanatory value or whether more structural factors determine legal systems and their operation.

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, taken from a variety of countries across the globe.

Course objectives

  • Student is able to give an anthropological definition of culture and explain critiques of the culture concept.

  • Student is able to give arguments for and against the different ways modern legal systems deal with cultural difference and can use examples to substantiate his/her argument.

  • Student is able to differentiate between different understandings of the relationship between law, culture and society and to draw on these understandings in his/her own work.

  • Student is able to differentiate between socio-legal approaches and other approaches to law, can apply the socio-legal lens and can distinguish between different theoretical approaches within the field of socio-legal studies (in particular with reference to culture)

  • Student is able to explain the concept of legal pluralism and to explain different conceptions of what law is.

  • Within the course topic, student is able to choose his/her own topic of interest, design a research question and scope of research and write a literature-based research paper


Once available, timetables will be published here.

Mode of instruction

The course uses a variety of teaching methods, including lecturing, student presentations, case resolving, and class discussion. Additional information will be announced on Blackboard.


  • Group presentation, 10%, weeks 1-7;

  • In-class participation (including debates), 10%, weeks 1-7;

  • Three short reaction papers to week’s readings, 15%;

  • 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

Reference to the literature for each seminar will be available in the syllabus.


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