Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology

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Beatrix Krause
Department Secretary

Advokatenweg 36
06114 Halle (Saale)

The Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology is one of the world’s leading centres for research in socio-cultural anthropology. Common to all research projects at the Institute is the comparative analysis of social change; it is primarily in this domain that its researchers contribute to anthropological theory, though many programmes also have applied significance and political topicality.

Of the Institute’s three Departments, Max Planck Law is connected with the ‘Law and Anthropology’ Department headed by Professor Marie-Claire Foblets. Established in March 2012, the ‘Law & Anthropology’ Department’s point of departure is the observation that values and norms today are circulating ever more vigorously among diverse societies and cultures. With this intensification of exchanges and encounters comes an increasing demand for translation between different legal orders at various levels of decision making all over the world. This demand engages, among others, the disciplines of social anthropology and law. It requires them not only to confront their own serious epistemological and conceptual constraints, each from its own perspective, but also to examine the extent to which scholars of the disciplines in question can and should take responsibility for the impact and the effects these translations may have in practice.

The Department seeks to further these developments by combining the contributions to the study of law (both at the theoretical level and in terms of legal practice) made by anthropology, with its intrinsic concern for the culturally embedded nature of any normative ordering, with those made by jurisprudence in order to come to an empirically informed analysis of socio-legal processes. With this approach, the Department commits its research agenda to a concept of law in society that takes account both of the rule- and precedent-based approach commonly adopted in jurisprudence and legal studies, and the social anthropological approach to normativity, broadly defined.

Research Areas or ‘Priorities’

The current era is marked by an extraordinary proliferation of identities, affiliations, and allegiance—religious, linguistic, ethnic, regional, transnational, etc— that are irreversibly transforming societies into new types of plural entities. We endeavour to identify normative frameworks, judicial decisions (case law, both national and international), and practices that address this plurality and assess to what extent they are responsive to the expectations of the individuals and peoples to whom they apply.

In recent decades, the concept of human rights has emerged as the touchstone for all new international legal instruments, as well as for the interpretation of alternative (non-state) normative orders. The mainstream conception of human rights is built on individual human rights that are presumed to be universal and of benefit to all. Individual human rights are today enshrined in most formal state laws, which in turn constitute formal grounds for sanctions designed to ‘eradicate’ what are considered inappropriate or unacceptable practices. Our approach to legal anthropology does not neglect this, but accords at least as much importance to the particular way a society or a group views identity, affiliations, and allegiances as they evolve in response to historical circumstances, calling into question the supposed universality of human rights based on a Western notion of the individual. Legal anthropology offers a valuable tool-kit (ethnographic, conceptual, and theoretical) that makes it possible to explore the degree to which the acceptance of pluralism within international human rights law can serve as a response to diversity within and among societies.

This priority encourages greater collaboration between anthropologists and legal practitioners, giving equal weight both to an anthropologically informed understanding of the diversity of normative orders and to the practical, hands-on experience and concerns of judges, lawyers, legal services representatives, and others who, in their daily practice, confront the phenomenon of ‘internormativity’—situations where different normative orders and logics (often existing side-by-side within a single state system) come into contact (and often conflict) with one another—and the resulting need for state legal systems to accommodate this diversity. This involves both applied legal anthropology and a concerted effort to involve legal practitioners in the research, thinking, and theorizing about the search for justice and the accommodation of diversity in contemporary pluralistic societies. Anthropological consultancy work in relation to concrete legal problems represents an increasingly critical form of applied anthropology and offers a distinctive lens through which to examine not only the purposes, dilemmas, vicissitudes, conflicts and other issues that revolve around the positionality of the ethnographic consultant, but also the validity of their empirical findings and the ethical problems raised by consultancy work.

Cross-cultural comparison is always an extremely tricky enterprise: fundamental to the task of cross-cultural comparison is the basic question of how the anthropologist talks about the events and institutions he or she is studying at a local level, and how he or she ‘translates’ them into different cultural and legal idioms. As it is ethnography that generates the empirical data that subsequently feed into cross-cultural comparison, members of the Department devote particular and systematic attention to the risks, causes, and potential effects of ‘false comparisons’ in their analysis of empirical (fieldwork) data and critically examine the processes of translation and comparison that can generate such distortions. By increasing sensitivity to issues of comparability and translation and by systematically drawing attention to the epistemological, linguistic, and methodological difficulties that come with comparison and translation, the work of our Department can help refine the conceptual framework and accompanying theoretical models available in legal anthropology for studying and comparing legal and judicial mechanisms and identifying normative thresholds (formal/informal; state/non-state; secular/religious; legal/illegal, etc.) in a variety of settings.

All four above-mentioned priorities are situated at the level of reflection on the nature and aims of the work done by anthropologists involved in law and legal practice. They are also intrinsically linked to the scholarly research currently being done in the domain of law and anthropology. Given that the results of that research are often drawn upon for practical applications by political or judicial decision makers, this presents a serious set of challenges to the discipline. No anthropologist today can afford to ignore the real or potential impact of the knowledge he or she disseminates through reports and publications, particularly when these appear to influence the treatment of minorities, protection of heritage, or land conflicts, to name but a few vital issues. In the years to come, the Department will seek to contribute to the critical reflection on the implications for legal practice of anthropological research.


Research Highlights

Joining the Institute

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