23. Ethnography of law

Convenors: Luca Sterchele (Università degli Studi di Milano Bicocca); Francesca Vianello (Università degli Studi di Padova) 

The connection between ethnography and law is curious. Although the ethnographic study of law and normative systems has been one of the main goals of legal anthropology since its emergence (Malinowski, 2013 [1926]; Evans-Pritchard, 1940), ethnographies of contemporary western judicial practices – focusing specifically on law, its uses and meanings – are still rare (Márquez Porras, 2021). At the same time, sociology of law has traditionally paid little attention to the ethnographic, apart from certain strands of research such as ethnometodology (Garfinkel, 1967; Sacks, 1972). Given this situation, a recent minoritarian but significant enhancement of ethnographic approaches taken by scholars from various fields has resulted in an interesting blurring of perspectives, suggesting that the traditional boundaries between disciplines can be ignored (Bens and Vetters, 2018). All of these approaches can come together in ethnographic practice, making ethnographic legal studies a promising interdisciplinary enterprise.

Riding this development, we intend to gather contributions from researchers in various disciplines who study law qualitatively. Besides welcoming studies that investigate law in the places officially designated for its production and implementation, we are open to contributions that explore how the legal field (Bourdieu, 1987) should be rediscovered within spaces that are not officially intended as juridical. In the conviction that the legal world is constantly produced in the interactions between legal professionals and “lay” actors in everyday life, we wish to stress the importance of studying law ethnographically in its everyday dimensions. The studies that go in this direction delve into the mobilization of law by various actors, from the perspective of reaffirming its significance or challenging its legitimacy. Such studies may range from the classical distinction between “law in books” and “law in action” – considering the role of street-level bureaucracy in the modelling of “living” law – to examining the various ways in which different subjectivities experience law in their everyday life, as legal professionals or as willing or unwilling “users”. In this sense, situations in which sociologists, anthropologists, and other professionals enter the legal field as “cultural experts” become relevant too (Holden, 2020). The practices of “translating” everyday life or scientific knowledge into juridical language (and vice versa) are fundamental in all those processes, as is the interaction between different types of expert and lay knowledge involved in the construction, interpretation, mobilization, shaping and application of law. 

Keywords: law; ethnography; legal culture; juridical field; lawmaking; legal process; street-level bureaucracy;

Contributions may include, but are not limited to, qualitative research on the following topics:

  • Legal cultures;
  • Legal pluralism and unofficial law;
  • Law in books vs law in action;
  • Juridical professions;
  • “Cultural” and other non-legal expertise within the juridical field;
  • Street level bureaucracy;
  • Lawmaking;
  • Processes of criminalization;
  • Sentencing;


  • Bens, J., & Vetters, L. (2018) «Ethnographic legal studies: reconnecting anthropological and sociological traditions», The Journal of Legal Pluralism and Unofficial Law, 50(3), 239-254.
  • Bourdieu, P. (1987) «The force of law: toward a sociology of the juridical field», Hastings Law Journal, 38(5), 814-853.
  • Evans Pritchard, E. E. (1940) The Nuer: a description of the modes of livelihood and political institutions of a Nilotic people, London, Oxford University Press.
  • Garfinkel, H. (1967) Studies in Ethnomethodology, Englewood Cliffs, Prentice Hall.
  • Holden, L. (2020) «Cultural expertise and law: an historical overview», in Law and History Review, 38(1), 29-46.
  • Malinowski, B. (2013 [1926]) Crime and custom in Savage Society, New York, Routledge.
  • Márquez Porras, R. (2021) «A call for ethnographying the judiciary (beyond the courtroom)», The Journal of Legal Pluralism and Unofficial Law, 53(3), 419-423.
  • Nelken, D. (2017) «Using the concept of legal culture», in M. Del Mar & M. Giudice (eds) Legal Theory and the Social Sciences, New York, Routledge, 279-303.
  • Sacks, H. (1972) «Notes on police assessment of moral character», in D.N. Sudnow (eds) Studies in social interaction, New York, Free Press, 280-293.

As evidenced by some recent publications on the topic, the session may be of interest to researchers from different scientific areas: between others, Sociology and Anthropology of Law; Law; Political Sociology and Anthropology of the State; Geography; Political and Legal Philosophy.

Convenors’ short bio
Luca Sterchele, PhD in Social Sciences at the University of Padua, is Research fellow in Sociology at the University of Milan Bicocca. Sociologist of Law, he works mainly on prison, medical knowledge and mental health using qualitative methodologies, particularly ethnography. He teaches Sociology of Health, Law and Deviance at the University of Padua. He collaborates with the Master in Critical Criminology at the Universities of Padua and Bologna, where he gives lectures on qualitative methods for social research and on topics related to prison, health, professional and legal cultures.

Francesca Vianello, PhD, is Associate professor of Sociology of Law, Deviance and Social Change at the University of Padua, where she teaches Sociology of Law and Deviance and Sociology of Prison. She is Director of the first level specialization degree in Critical Criminology (Universities of Padova and Bologna). Member of the executive board of AIS Law, she is author of several publications on prison sociology and has coordinated numerous European and national projects addressing various socio-legal topics. She is also the Rector’s delegate for the Polo Universitario Penitenziario (PUP) in the prison in Padua.

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