Legal pluralism is a contemporary image of law that has been advanced by sociolegal scholars in response to the dominant monist image of law as derivative of the political state and its progeny. The pluralistic image redirects law and society research toward the myriad normative orders outside the circle of “the Law.” This essay considers the epistemological foundations of both legal pluralism and the legal monist image of law against which its proponents are reacting. It argues that contemporary pluralistic imaginations rest on the same impoverished view of law and its subjects that sustains the traditional claim that law comprises only the processes and institutions emanating from the modern political state. The authors propose an alternative image of law in an effort to redirect the sociolegal studies research agenda.
Challenging the traditional social-scientific legal pluralism of reified cultures and communities, the idea of critical legal pluralism presented in this essay rests on the insight that it is knowledge that maintains and creates realities: a critical legal pluralism imagines legal subjects as “law inventing” and not merely “law abiding.” The authors argue that, once the constructive, creative capacities of legal subjects are recognized alongside the plurality of these same subjects, the relationship between laws and selves reveals its complexity. They acknowledge that their approach is only one of many possible critical legal pluralist approaches; but they maintain that any reconception of law within a framework of critical legal pluralism is a form of emancipatory prescription. As definitions of law are revised and rejected, new vistas are opened for sociolegal scholarship.