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Anthropology on trial: exploring the laws of anthropological expertise

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 July 2016

Olaf Zenker*
Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Freie Universität Berlin, Landoltweg 9–11, 14195 Berlin, Germany. E-mail:


This paper explores the role of anthropological expertise in shaping the outcome of legal proceedings under conditions of cultural diversity. Taking the state-driven land-restitution process in post-apartheid South Africa as its point of reference, the text reflects upon the work of anthropological experts in a number of cases and shows how their theoretical and political stances shaped the trajectories of their legal engagements. Pointing towards frictions that emerge in acts of translation between the seemingly objectivist rhetoric evoked in court and more relativist and subjectivist stances within the academy, the paper revisits and problematises debates around strategic essentialism. Sketching instead the contours of a ‘recursive anthropology’ that expresses itself in terms of a post-positivist universalism, the paper turns on the author's use of his own expertise in support of a White land claim, probing – and critically reflecting upon – the practical potential of a form of expertise grounded in such a recursive anthropology.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2016 

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