Hostname: page-component-848d4c4894-hfldf Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-05-18T21:03:01.368Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

Anthropology and the law: historicising the epistemological divide

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 July 2016

Jonas Bens*
Research Fellow, Freie Universität Berlin, Institute for Social and Cultural Anthropology, Habelschwerdter Allee 45, 14195Berlin. E-mail:


Focusing on the history of US anthropology between World War II and the high point of the Vietnam War protests in the late 1960s, this paper aims to historicise the assumed epistemological divide between anthropological and legal thinking. It is shown how anthropology as a discipline in the US has restructured some of its basic assumptions and changed its institutional structure in the context of legal interventions in larger struggles, specifically the court-based battles against racial segregation and the legal proceedings related to indigenous land rights before the Indian Claims Commission. Special consideration is given to an analysis of how objectivity is conceptualised in the literature on anthropological expert witnessing: from mechanical objectivity before 1970 to critical objectivity after 1970. The paper concludes with a caveat against exaggerating existing epistemological differences between anthropology and law, and suggests a more pragmatic approach to interdisciplinary communication.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2016 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


American Society of Ethnohistory (Ase) (2014) ‘About the American Society of Ethnohistory and Its History’, available at: <>..>Google Scholar
Ansson, Richard J. (1998) ‘The Indian Claims Commission: Did the American Indians Really Have Their Day in Court?’, American Indian Law Review 23: 207215.Google Scholar
Assier-Andrieu, Louis (2015) ‘Dificultad y necesidad de la antropología del derecho’, Revista de Antropología Social 24(1): 3552.Google Scholar
Behar, Ruth and Gordon, Deborah A. (eds) (1995) Women Writing Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
Benda-Beckmann, Franz v. (1981) ‘Rechtsantropologie in Nederland’, Sociologische Gids 28: 297400.Google Scholar
Benedict, Ruth (1946) The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture. Boston: Mifflin Houghton.Google Scholar
Bennett, John W. (1996) ‘Applied and Action Anthropology: Ideological and Conceptual Aspects’, Current Anthropology 37: S23S53.Google Scholar
Cahn, Edmond (1955) ‘Jurisprudence’, New York University Law Review 30: 150.Google Scholar
Caplan, Pat (2003) ‘Introduction: Anthropology and Ethics’ in Caplan, Pat (ed.) The Ethics of Anthropology: Debates and Dilemmas. London: Routledge, 133.Google Scholar
Clark, Kenneth B. (1953) ‘The Social Scientist as an Expert Witness in Civil Rights Litigation’, Social Problems 1: 510.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Clark, Kenneth B. (1960) ‘The Desegregation Cases: Criticism of the Social Scientist's Role’, Villanova Law Review 5: 224240.Google Scholar
Clifford, James and Marcus, George E. (eds) (1986) Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
Cohen, Felix S. (1947) ‘Original Indian Title’, Minnesota Law Review 32: 2859.Google Scholar
Danforth, Sandra C. (1972) ‘Repaying Historical Debts: The Indian Claims Commission’, North Dakota Law Review 49: 359403.Google Scholar
Darnell, Regna (1998) And Along Came Boas: Continuity and Revolution in Americanist Anthropology. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Darnell, Regna (2008) ‘North American Traditions in Anthropology: The Historiographic Baseline’ in Kuklick, Henrika (ed.) A New History of Anthropology. Malden: Blackwell, 3551.Google Scholar
Daston, Lorraine (1992) ‘Objectivity and the Escape from Perspective’, Social Studies of Science 22: 597618.Google Scholar
Daston, Lorraine and Galison, Peter (1992) ‘The Image of Objectivity’, Representations 40: 81128.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Daston, Lorraine and Galison, Peter (2007) Objectivity. New York: Zone Books.Google Scholar
Davidson, Michael (1992) ‘Law, Science, Causality, and Proof’, NAPA Bulletin 11(1): 2228.Google Scholar
Edmond, Gary (2004) ‘Thick Decisions: Expertise, Advocacy and Reasonableness in the Federal Court of Australia’, Oceania 74: 190230.Google Scholar
Feldman, Kerry D. (1980) ‘Ethnohistory and the Anthropologist as Expert Witness in Legal Disputes: A Southwestern Alaska Case’, Journal of Anthropological Research 36: 245257.Google Scholar
Fiedermutz-Laun, Annemarie (1990) ‘Adolf Bastian (1826–1905)’ in Marschall, Wolfgang (ed.) Klassiker der Kulturanthropologie: Von Montaigne bis Margaret Mead. München: Beck, 109136.Google Scholar
Fletcher, Matthew L. M. (2009) ‘Native American Law’ in Katz, Stanley Nider (ed.) The Oxford International Encyclopedia of Legal History. New York: Oxford University Press, 206214.Google Scholar
Fluehr-Lobban, Carolyn (2013) Ethics and Anthropology: Ideas and Practice. Lanham: Altamira Press.Google Scholar
Geertz, Clifford (1983) ‘Local Knowledge: Fact and Law in Comparative Perspective’ in Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology. New York: Basic Books, 167234.Google Scholar
Geertz, Clifford (1988) Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author. Stanford: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
Getches, David H., Wilkinson, Charles F., Williams, Robert A. and Fletcher, Matthew L. M. (2011) Cases and Materials on Federal Indian Law. St Paul: West.Google Scholar
Good, Anthony (2004) ‘“Undoubtedly an Expert”? Anthropologists in British Asylum Courts’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 10(1): 113133.Google Scholar
Gormley, Donald C. (1955) ‘The Role of the Expert Witness’, Ethnohistory 2(4): 326346.Google Scholar
Gregor, James (1963) ‘The Law, Social Science and School Segregation: An Assessment’, Western Reserve Law Review 14: 621636.Google Scholar
Griffiths, John (1986) ‘Recent Anthropology of Law in the Netherlands and Its Historical Background’ in von Benda-Beckmann, Keebet and Strijbosch, Fons (eds) Anthropology of Law in the Netherlands: Essays on Legal Pluralism. Dordrecht: Foris, 1166.Google Scholar
Harkin, Michael E. (2010) ‘Ethnohistory's Ethnohistory: Creating a Discipline from the Ground Up’, Social Science History 34(2): 113128.Google Scholar
Hartmann, Roswith (1987) ‘Hermann Trimborn (1901–1986)’, Indiana 11: 408414.Google Scholar
Holmberg, Allan (1964) ‘The Role of Power in Changing Values and Institutions in Vicos’ in Dobyns, Henry F., Doughty, P. and Lasswell, H. (eds) Peasants, Power, and Applied Social Change: Vicos as a Model. London: Sage, 3763.Google Scholar
Hymes, Dell (ed.) (1969) Reinventing Anthropology. New York: Pantheon Books.Google Scholar
James, Allison, Hockey, Jennifer Lorna and Dawson, Andrew H. (eds) (1997) After Writing Culture: Epistemology and Praxis in Contemporary Anthropology. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
Kalmuss, Debra (1981) ‘Scholars in the Courtroom: Two Models of Applied Social Science’, The American Sociologist 16(4): 212223.Google Scholar
Kandel, Randy Frances (1992) ‘Six Differences in Assumptions and Outlook between Anthropologists and Attorneys’, NAPA Bulletin 11(1): 14.Google Scholar
Killian, Lewis M. (1956) ‘The Social Scientist's Role in the Preparation of the Florida Desegregation Brief’, Social Problems 3(4): 211214.Google Scholar
Kluger, Richard (2004) Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and America's Struggle for Equality. New York: Knopf.Google Scholar
Kuklick, Henrika (2008) ‘The British Tradition’ in Kuklick, Henrika (ed.) A New History of Anthropology. Malden: Blackwell, 5278.Google Scholar
Lewis, Herbert (2013) In Defense of Anthropology: An Investigation of the Critique of Anthropology. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.Google Scholar
Louisell, David W. (1954) ‘The Psychologist in Today's Legal World’, Minnesota Law Review 39: 235272.Google Scholar
Louisell, David W. (1956) ‘The Psychologist in Today's Legal World: Part II’, Minnesota Law Review 41: 731750.Google Scholar
Lurie, Nancy Oestreich (1957) ‘The Indian Claims Commission Act’, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 311: 5670.Google Scholar
Lurie, Nancy Oestreich (1978) ‘The Indian Claims Commission’, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 436: 97110.Google Scholar
Lyall, Andrew (2008) ‘Early German Legal Anthropology: Albert Hermann Post and His Questionnaire’, Journal of African Law 52(1): 114138.Google Scholar
Manners, Robert A. (1956) ‘The Land Claims Cases: Anthropologists in Conflict’, Ethnohistory 3(1): 7281.Google Scholar
Marschelke, Jan-Christoph (2015) ‘Equal but Separate: Slavery, Racism and Post-Emancipatory Legal Equality’ in Hilgendorf, Eric, Marschelke, Jan-Christoph and Sekora, Karin (eds) Slavery as a Global and Regional Phenomenon. Heidelberg: Winter.Google Scholar
Maslow, Will (1960) ‘How Social Scientists Can Shape Legal Processes’, Villanova Law Review 5: 241246.Google Scholar
Mcgurk, Frank C. J. (1960) ‘The Law, Social Science and Academic Freedom: A Psychologist's View’, Villanova Law Review 5: 247254.Google Scholar
Mcmillen, Christian W. (2007) Making Indian Law: The Hualiapai Land Case and the Birth of Ethnohistory. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
Mills, David (2003) ‘“Like a Horse in Blinkers”? A Political History of Anthropology's Research Ethics’ in Caplan, Pat (ed.) The Ethics of Anthropology: Debates and Dilemmas. London: Routledge, 3754.Google Scholar
Moore, D. R. (1974) ‘Social Scientists as Suppliers of Facts: Do Lawyers Listen?’ in Thomas, William (ed.) Scientists in the Legal System: Tolerated Meddlers or Essential Contributors? Ann Arbor: Science Publishers, 97102.Google Scholar
Newby, Idus A. (1967) Challenge to the Court: Social Scientists and the Defense of Segregation, 1954–1966. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.Google Scholar
Olson, Gary A. and Hirsh, Elizabeth (eds) (1995) Women Writing Culture. Albany: State University of New York Press.Google Scholar
Pinkoski, Marc and Asch, Michael (2004) ‘Anthropology and Indigenous Rights in Canada and the United States: Implications of Steward's Theoretical Project’ in Barnard, Alan (ed.) Hunter-Gatherers in History, Archaeology, and Anthropology. Oxford: Berg, 187201.Google Scholar
Ray, Verne F. (1955) ‘Introduction’, Ethnohistory 2(4): 287291.Google Scholar
Rigby, Peter and Sevareid, Peter (1992) ‘Lawyers, Anthropologists, and the Knowledge of Facts’, NAPA Bulletin 11(1): 521.Google Scholar
Riles, Annelise (1994) ‘Representing In-Between: Law, Anthropology, and the Rhetoric of Interdisciplinarity’, University of Illinois Law Review 3: 597650.Google Scholar
Rose, Arnold M. (1955) ‘The Social Scientist as an Expert Witness’, Minnesota Law Review 40: 205218.Google Scholar
Rosen, Lawrence (1977) ‘The Anthropologist as Expert Witness’, American Anthropologist 79(3): 555578.Google Scholar
Rosen, Paul L. (1972) Supreme Court and Social Science. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.Google Scholar
Schlesier, Karl H. (1974) ‘Action Anthropology and the Southern Cheyenne’, Current Anthropology 15(3): 277283.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Scholte, Bob (1969) ‘Toward a Reflexive and Critical Anthropology’ in Hymes, Dell (ed.) Reinventing Anthropology. New York: Pantheon Books, 430459.Google Scholar
Silverman, Sydel (2005) ‘The United States’ in Barth, Fredrik, Gingrich, Andre, Parkin, Robert and Silverman, Sydel (eds) One Discipline, Four Ways: British, German, French and American Anthropology. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 257348.Google Scholar
Singer, Merryl (2008) ‘Applied Anthropology’ in Kuklick, Henrika (ed.) A New History of Anthropology. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 326340.Google Scholar
Šmitek, Zmago and Jezernik, Božidar (1995) ‘The Anthropological Tradition in Slovenia’ in Vermeulen, Han F. and Roldán, Arturo Alvarez (eds) Fieldwork and Footnotes: Studies in the History of European Anthropology. London: Routledge, 171183.Google Scholar
Stanley, Stan (1996) ‘Community, Action, and Continuity: A Narrative Vita of Sol Tax’, Current Anthropology 37: S131S137.Google Scholar
Stewart, Omer C. (1979) ‘An Expert Witness Answers Rosen’, American Anthropologist 81(1): 108111.Google Scholar
Tax, Sol (1958/1975) ‘Action Anthropology’, Current Anthropology 16(4): 514517.Google Scholar
Trimborn, Hermann (1954) ‘Richard Thurnwald’, Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 79(2): 254260.Google Scholar
Van Vollenhoven, Cornelis (1918–1933) Het Adatrecht van Nederlandsch-Indië, three volumes. Leiden: Brill.Google Scholar
Van Vollenhoven, Cornelis (1928) Ontdekking van het Adatrecht. Leiden: Brill.Google Scholar
Vincent, Joan (1990) Anthropology and Politics: Visions, Traditions, and Trends. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.Google Scholar
Wilkinson, Charles F. and Biggs, Eric R. (1977) ‘The Evolution of the Termination Policy’, American Indian Law Review 5(1): 139184.Google Scholar
Wilson, James Q. (1997) ‘Keep Social-Science “Experts” Out of the Courtroom’, Chronicle of Higher Education, 6 June: A52.Google Scholar
Wolfgang, Marvin E. (1974) ‘The Social Scientist in Court’, Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 65(2): 239247.Google Scholar
Wong, Kenneth K. and Nicotera, Anna C. (2004) ‘“Brown v. Board of Education” and the Coleman Report: Social Science Research and the Debate on Educational Equality’, Peabody Journal of Education 79(2): 122135.Google Scholar
Zenker, Olaf (2014) ‘Writing Culture’ in Jackson, John (ed.) Oxford Bibliographies Online. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Zenker, Olaf and Kumoll, Karsten (eds) (2013) Beyond Writing Culture: Current Intersections of Epistemologies and Representational Practices. New York: Berghahn Books.Google Scholar