Of details and patterns: can we marry the anthropology of law and legal sociology?

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At the recent LASSNET conference on ‘Thinking with Evidence: Seeking Certainty, Making Truth’, I was delighted to attend a panel on ‘Encountering Islam and Law in India: Transitions from the Colonial to Post-Colonial with a unique set of speakers. Geetanjali Srikantan and Aishwarya Pandit presented their work using a legal sociology approach, heavily soaked in details, dripping with facts and a meticulous analysis of events. The presentations reminded me so much of my own experiences writing about the law as a young law graduate. The attention to detail, the right sequence of events, the emphasis on procedure, the search for sense amidst the chaos of legal and juridical texts, narratives and practices.

Prof. Deepak Mehta’s work on the Babri Masjid which used similar material, legal and administrative literature produced in court in the Babri Masjid Case, looked at the manner in which meanings were made through an association of words. Words that we construct to depict, detail and illustrate the world of us, to communicate not just facts or events, but what they mean and signify – its through these words that we construct the world around us. His presentation was really the best I attended at the conference, not least because Dr. Mehta’s works, specially on quilt making and his book with Roma Chatterjee Living with Violence, An Anthropology of Events and Everyday Life have been my favorite reads, as an aspiring anthropologist. In his analysis of the Babri Masjid court proceedings, he looks for significance in the language used by courts, paying attention to how myth is woven with reality within the modern legal system. How is myth used in the modern courts, how does the judicial apparatus deal with evidence steeped in myth, how is myth rationalized through the everyday administrative and judicial processes and how does an attention to these everyday practices of meaning making lend to a discussion of the law?

The contrast between these two different modes of social analysis, got me thinking about my own experiences as a lawyer and assistant editor of the Lawyers Collective’s magazine, the frustrations and anxieties of making sense of legal technicalities and procedural law, of the difficulties of translating legal material to make sense of it socially, and the anxieties of over simplifying and thus loosing legal meanings. This mode of thinking of the law is fashioned by an emphasis on facts and interpretations, on procedural law and technicalities in regulations that govern the manner in which time, evidence and documents are appraised. The language of the court that is often mired in these technicalities, with a strong divide between the substantive and the procedural, engulfs the lives of the trained lawyer. As a student I often wondered if the machinery of law could function without lawyers, if procedural law was so important and was mechanically applied, why would anyone need a human being I wondered. I remember pacing up and down the corridors of the High Court of Karnatak, sweating in the black coat, white collar and black long gown, wondering why I had to wait to ask for an adjournment, could it not be done online? When the law rigorously laid down the number and conditions of adjournment and everything was pre decided with a very small, almost insignificant margin to sway the decision, why was a human required to get this done? And yet, the court is anything but mechanical, with the social bleeding into the judicial system, with political, personal and economic relations perforating the relations between clients, lawyers and judges. In the backdrop of these relations, the very systems of procedure and interpretation serve as tools for the social and the human, rather than the inverse.

It is this human aspect of law, of the manner in which life is both the subject and object of the law, that fascinates anthropologists. Veena Das and her work on the legal imagination and the manner in which such imaginaries seep into the everyday lives of people, evoke questions of the law that a lawyer is often not trained to ask. Dr. Mehta’s work does precisely this, unmaking the boundaries between the legal and the social, looking at the meanings made in between, and thus in the process bringing life to the centre of law and the legal apparatus. In his work, this life can be discerned in the very mechanical administrative and legal literature that is mechanically prepared, filed, argued and disposed off everyday in the courts. The dull, dreary drudgery of procedures thus begins to acquire life, meaning and significance. It is this ability to see these patterns of significance  amidst the chaotic world of details that makes law a fascinating topic of analysis. But can we marry these two, can the details take on a significance beyond themselves? Can anthropology seep into the work of lawyers and the sociologists of law?

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