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Legal Systems Worldwide: Law and Culture




Admission Requirements

Similarly tagged 100-level and 200-level courses. Students that do not meet this prerequisite should contact

the instructor regarding the required competencies before course allocation.


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 defences 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.

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 that law is something typical of modern states. 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

Japanese and Indonesians tend to settle their disputes outside the court, whereas in the US citizens seem to

resort to litigation for the most trivial matters. Looking more in depth at such issues will reveal that the

answers to such questions are not as stereotypical as often assumed.
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.

Course Objectives

The course objectives are the following:

  • to gain an understanding of different concepts of law and culture and how the two relate;

  • to acquire knowledge of how modern legal systems deal with cultural issues and to understand what the pros

and cons of various such approaches are;

  • to get an insight into some basic skills of legal reasoning and to learn how to apply them;

  • to gain an understanding of the different ways in which law can influence society and the other way round.

Mode of Instruction

The course uses a variety of teaching methods, including lecturing, student presentations, case resolving,

class discussion and more ‘formal’ debate.




The required and recommended reading will be listed in the course syllabus and will be made available on

blackboard. For some of the assessments students will have to do their own literature search.

Contact Information


Weekly Overview

Week 1 – Introduction: law, culture, legal pluralism, disciplinary approaches
Week 2 – Culture in the courtroom I : the cultural defence in criminal law cases
Week 3 – Culture in the courtroom II : cultural influence on judicial decisionmaking Human rights: universal or expression of cultural values?
Week 4 – Recognition of cultural rights Changing culture through law
Week 5 – Law as a mirror of society
Week 6 – The rule of law as a universal good?
Week 7 – Legal culture

Preparation for first session