1. Program Overview

The goal of the program is to produce Law School graduates who are more sophisticated thinkers and more productive legal practitioners, and who are also more attractive to potential employers.

By using the tools of Cultural Anthropology to explore the interactions between culture and law, law students will gain a broadened perspective on law. From comparative study they will gain a sense of how different societies handle important legal matters, such as the maintenance of social order, dispute resolution, and the allocation of resources. At the same time, law students will learn to recognize the ways that various peoples – whether globally or among subgroups within this country – interpret, rely on, and turn to the law differently. Given that lawyers increasingly act in an international arena, understanding these differences can be the key to success for a legal practitioner. This is true whether the matter in question is drafting a mutually acceptable contract or resolving a dispute, especially where diverse cultural norms and ideologies are at play.

Most fundamentally, law students will gain an appreciation of the profoundly cultural assumptions underlying legal doctrine and practice in our own society as well as others. Students will be introduced to methods of cultural research with which to uncover and investigate the nature of these cultural assumptions – methods including the historical analysis of legal institutions and practices, analysis of legal discourse, and the ethnography of communication in legal settings.

The program coordinator, Dr. Kevin Sobel-Read, is especially well-suited to assist law students in drawing on Cultural Anthropology to make themselves better and more marketable legal practitioners: Dr. Sobel-Read has a JD (NYU School of Law) as well as a Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology (Duke), and in addition to being a Visiting Assistant Professor in our department and a Senior Lecturing Fellow in the Law School, he also has ten years of experience as a corporate attorney practicing complex civil litigation in New York City and North Carolina.

2. Benefits of an MA in Cultural Anthropology

Duke’s JD/MA Program in Cultural Anthropology makes law students more marketable as job candidates and better practitioners as lawyers. In addition to the general benefits that come with learning the methods of qualitative research and increasing cross-cultural understanding, there are many areas where a background in legal anthropology can be especially relevant to a legal practitioner and particularly compelling to potential employers:

·  International business

International business continues to grow in importance for nearly all companies. Indeed, a recent ad for HSBC boasts the bank’s view that in the coming years even a child’s lemonade stand will be linked to the global market. This continuous expansion of globalized commerce is built on cross-border legal transactions and relationships. Lawyers with sophisticated cross-cultural understandings of legal doctrine therefore can have a significant advantage.

·  Human rights work

Human rights work is generally by its very nature a cross-cultural activity.  Moreover, theories of human rights are themselves embedded in globalized discourses about the rights of individuals and the roles of nation-states. Since the beginning of human rights as a global doctrine, the field of Anthropology has been central in helping both to understand local conditions and to mediate between local interests and global forces. 

·  American Indian business and commerce

Many American Indian groups are quickly gaining economic power. These gains have entailed unprecedented levels of business within and across Tribal borders. This increased business activity calls for lawyers who are not only proficient in standard business law but who are also aware of Indian issues in general and are likewise sophisticated in related and exciting areas of the law such as sovereign immunity, choice of law, and of course, Indian Law. 

·  Sexuality and Rights Issues

In the United States, as in many places around the world, sexuality has become front-page news. As demonstrated by the extensive popular media coverage of the debate on same-sex marriage, to take one example, sexuality-related issues are now an important part of mainstream American discourse just as they are central to contemporary discussions about American law. It is clear, moreover, that such debates are as much about the social meanings of sexuality and gender as they are, at a primary level, about the proper role of the law in social relationships. As such, from court actions seeking to render sodomy laws unconstitutional to popular referendums aimed at constitutionalizing heterosexual marriage, the tools of Anthropology intersect with and serve to support those of law.

·  Public interest law

One of the significant historical insights of the field of Legal Anthropology has been to help demonstrate that laws often affect different groups differently based on factors such as class, race, and gender. Those factors continue to play a role in the unequal provision of – and more importantly, the unequal protection of – rights in this country and others. At the same time, the tools of Anthropology continue to be central in demystifying these links between law and inequality. Therefore, whether in regard to housing, employment, criminal matters or others, these tools can make the difference in providing effective legal representation, especially of underprivileged clients.

·  International criminal law

As concepts of jurisdiction expand in our globalized world, the cutting-edge field of international criminal law has received significant academic attention. With the growing list of defendants appearing before the International Criminal Court, for example, a knowledge of intersections between crime and custom can be increasingly relevant for practitioners.

3. Admission

The JD/MA Program admits a small number of carefully selected applicants each year. This policy promotes the contact between faculty and graduate students which is central to the individual plan of study each student will pursue.

Admission to the program is contingent upon admission to the Law School. Admission is not necessarily dependent upon previous anthropological course work or any other specific program of study at the undergraduate level. Students are selected for intellectual promise, skill in spoken and written communication, and conceptual and analytical ability. All prospective students are encouraged to contact the JD/MA Program Director or the Director of Graduate Studies before applying, in order to discuss the program and its suitability for their individual goals.

4. Coursework requirements

The JD/MA student is required to complete a total of eight courses (24 units) and ungraded research (6 units) for completion of the MA degree (a total of 30 units with the Graduate School). Of the eight courses, the student may request permission from his/her advisor to take up to two courses in other departments and up to two independent studies. Students are not required to take the two-sequence theory course (CA 330S & 331S), as required for all PhD students, although they may elect to do so. Students should select courses that enable him/her to gain fluency in a small subsection of issues within the discipline (see Plan of Study). For students electing to write a thesis, work in these areas will form the basis of their Master’s thesis. Please note that the Graduate School establishes specific JD/MA requirements that students should read carefully. These requirements can be found at Requirements for JD/MA/MS.


To help students make the most of their studies, the JD/MA Program has developed three concentrations. Alternatively, students may develop an independent concentration in consultation with their advisor. The three existing concentrations are:

  • Globalization
  • Gender/Sexuality
  • Human Rights

Each concentration builds on a core course in Legal Anthropology.

Examples of recently taught courses that fit within these concentrations are:

A.   Globalization      

  • Fieldwork Methods

  • Theoretical Foundations

  • Culture, Power, History

  • Global Cities

  • Gender, Sex & Citizenship

  • Global Culture

  • Imperialism and Islamism

  • Global Mental Health

  • Nationalism

  • Governmentality

  • Globalization

  • Financial Crisis

  • Advertising and Society: Global Perspectives

  • Culture and Politics in China

  • Culture and Politics in Africa

  • Culture and Politics in Contemporary Europe

  • Millennial Capitalisms: Global Perspectives

  • Space, Place, and Power

  • (De)Coloniality & Geopolitics

  • Marxism and Society

  • Global Environmentalism and the Politics of Nature


B.   Gender/Sexuality

  • Fieldwork Methods
  • Theoretical Foundations
  • Cultures of New Media
  • Gender and Sexuality in Latin America
  • Advertising and Society: Global Perspectives
  • Advertising and Masculinity
  • Space, Place, and Power
  • Anthropology and History
  • Anthropology of Film
  • Science, Medicine and the Body
  • Anthropology of Sports
  • Precarity and Affect

C.   Human Rights

  • Fieldwork Methods
  • Theoretical Foundations
  • Anthropology of Race
  • Global Culture
  • Gender and Sexuality in Latin America
  • Global Mental Health
  • Nationalism
  • Governmentality
  • Globalization
  • Culture and Politics in China
  • Culture and Politics in Africa
  • Anthropology and History
  • Science, Medicine and the Body

The Independent Concentration option allows a student to combine courses that are of particular interest to the student in ways that are best tailored to that student’s career plans. For example, the JD/MA Program can help prepare students to work in or across various regions of the world. A student might therefore choose a concentration based on an area/region, such as in regard to China, Latin America, or the Middle East, among others.

5. Plan of study

Upon acceptance into the program, each student must write up a one-page Plan of Study which specifies two subject and/or regional areas in which they will concentrate their studies (i.e., gender, race, human rights, sexuality, Latin America, etc.). This plan of study should also discuss the relationship between these subject areas and the student’s interests in law and legal issues. It should be updated and revised each February, at which time it is submitted to the entire faculty for review.

6. Working with an advisor

By the spring of the second year, JD/MA students must have a JD/MA committee in place. This committee consists of faculty members whose work intersects with that of the student's elected subfields. The committee must be composed of 3 members; 2 members must have a current primary or joint appointment in Cultural Anthropology and 1 member must have a primary appointment in a discipline other than Anthropology (a Graduate School Requirement). The committee should have a single advisor, who must be a primary faculty member in the department. This advisor should have expertise in one of the concentration areas the student has designated.  The committee is chosen with the approval of the Director of Graduate Studies and the Dean of the Graduate School.

7. Thesis and Non-Thesis Track

The JD/MA program in Cultural Anthropology enables students to follow one of two tracks, a thesis track or a course-intensive track.

a. Thesis track: In addition to 6 courses in the department or in related fields, students on the thesis track will take 2 additional independent studies in their second or third years. At the end of the first unit of independent study, the student will produce a 10-15 page annotated bibliography that reviews the major literature of relevance to the thesis. This bibliography can draw on course work done over the previous 3 years, and will be evaluated by the student’s committee. At the end of the second unit, they will be expected to produce a thesis of 30-40 pages in length. Upon completion of the thesis, the student will have an oral defense of the thesis with a committee of 3 professors (her advisor and 2 others). The defense will occur at the end of the 6th semester, after all the other Master’s requirements have been fulfilled, and after the written work has been read and approved by the three committee members. This will constitute the culmination of the Master’s program and fulfillment of all necessary work for the degree

b. Course-intensive track: Students on this track will take 8 classes in the department and/or related fields and register for 6 units of ungraded research. Upon completion of coursework, students in this track will select 3 exemplary papers written during the course of their Master’s program. These papers will be read by the advisor and committee members from the department. The student will have an oral defense with this committee to discuss the papers. This will constitute the culmination of the Master’s program and fulfillment of all necessary work for the degree.

 
  • redbrick