Legal pluralism and legal culture: Mapping the terrain

Sally Engle Merry

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


    The concept of legal pluralism has proved enormously fruitful in challenging ideas about the centrality of state law and increasing awareness of the diversity of ways that individuals interact with the law. In exploring access to justice, it is essential to recognize the variety of forms of justice that individuals have available to them, the nature of each regime, the relations among them, and the variations in accessibility of each. However, in assessing the contribution of legal pluralism analysis to questions about access to justice, it is important to define the constituent units of legal pluralism carefully. The concepts of legal culture and legal consciousness are valuable frameworks for describing the distinct legal spheres within a legally plural field. Moreover, the concept of legal mobilization, along with its relationship to legal culture and legal consciousness, provides a dynamic way of understanding how legal pluralism affects access to justice in practice. Using these concepts, it is possible to ask, in what ways are legal spheres different? How does that difference affect the kinds of justice they deliver? How do these differences shape the extent to which individuals resort to each sphere? How do different patterns of mobilizing distinct legal spheres shape legal culture and legal consciousness? This chapter seeks to clarify some of these issues by unpacking the meanings of legal culture, legal consciousness, and legal mobilization and then showing how disentangling these concepts contributes to our understanding of legal pluralism. It then uses a case study to illustrate these concepts. The case study focuses on the nari adalat, a women's court developed in Gujarat in western India. Inspired by the Indian women's movement, human rights ideas, and the long-established village governance and judicial system of the panchayat, the nari adalat is a new legal forum embedded within other legal institutions. It expands the plurality of legal spheres for everyday life in Gujarat and increases access to justice. This means that it has the potential to provide a new form of legal mobilization and to foster a different legal culture and legal consciousness.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Title of host publicationLegal Pluralism and Development
    Subtitle of host publicationScholars and Practitioners in Dialogue
    PublisherCambridge University Press
    Number of pages17
    ISBN (Electronic)9781139094597
    ISBN (Print)9781107019409
    StatePublished - Jan 1 2012

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • General Arts and Humanities


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