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The Anthropology of Legal Pluralism in Cambodia Today

Katherine Culver


Cambodia’s contemporary legal system, dating to the 1993 Constitution, is complex and rapidly evolving. Since 1993, Cambodia’s legal system has been subject to a variety of external influences through the large amount of transnational participation in the development of laws and legal training and education, as well as the direct participation of foreign lawyers and judges at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. These more recent influences have overlaid a complex and pluralistic set of historical influences, including, during the 20th century alone, legal practices during the French colonial period; the Sangkum era; and the socialist 1980s.

In this presentation, Ms. Curlver will introduce the field of legal anthropology and will explain what it offers for the study of Cambodia’s legal system. While many legal scholars focus on what the law is (the meaning of particular laws) or what the law should be (what laws should be adopted), the focus of a legal anthropologist is on how law comes to be, or describing the social dynamics and cultural origins of how legal doctrines and practices have evolved and continue to develop. Study of these processes has a special urgency in contemporary Cambodia. Whether and how rule of law can be established is a high stakes question, as the establishment of rule of law has been framed as a safeguard against a return to the chaos of the lawless Khmer Rouge period and as a requirement for continued economic growth. Cambodia now has many laws; further evolution of its legal system will depend on practices that emerge around the implementation of these laws.

In Cambodia today, where many aspiring legal professionals study abroad in a variety of countries, legal education is as pluralistic as its legal system. The presentation will consider these pluralistic processes of legal socialization happening in Cambodia today and what they may suggest about the future of legal practice in Cambodia.


Katherine Culver is a CKS Senior Fellow and a PhD candidate in linguistic anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, where she will be a graduate fellow of the Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy in 2019-20. She also has a JD from Yale Law School. Her dissertation research looks at ongoing efforts to build legal infrastructure and rule of law in Cambodia today, with a focus on Cambodia’s young legal professionals.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the publications and through webinars are solely those of the authors or speakers. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of The Center for Khmer Studies, Inc. The designations employed in the publications and through the webinars, and the presentation of material therein, do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of The Center for Khmer Studies, Inc. as to the matters discussed therein. The responsibility for opinions expressed in the publications and webinars are solely those of the authors or speakers, and the publication does not constitute an endorsement by The Center for Khmer Studies, Inc. of the opinions, views or issues discussed therein.


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