2021: Is Russia an "illegitimate child in the family of Roman law"? An exploration of challenges and benefits in the study of legal cultures.

Emeritus Fellow of the CSLS at the University of Oxford, Marina Kurkchiyan, presented the 2021 Annual Socio-Legal Lecture

Profile image of Marina Kurkchiyan wearing a turtleneck and pendant.

Legal culture is a frequently contested concept in socio-legal studies, but at the same time it is also one that is frequently used. This talk will engage with the challenges of framing it conceptually and turning it into a meaningful line of empirical enquiry. Can such an all-inclusive and fuzzy concept have any empirical value? How can we accommodate the intrinsically conflicting qualities of legal cultures, such as historical inertia versus social dynamism? What intellectual traps are to be expected and what advantages can be gained by employing a legal culture approach? To illustrate the various issues thrown up by this exercise I will draw upon my years of research on Russian legal culture. I will argue that the use of the ‘legal culture’ lens has helped me to step away from the tendency of mainstream scholars to assert that law does not work in Russia because it is manipulated by the political elite there. Instead, I will contend that the right question to ask is not whether it works or not but how it works, what law means to the people of Russia and how deeply it is embedded in the fabric of their social relationships.  In conclusion I will argue that the use of a legal culture approach can not only yield insights into Russian law and society today but also encourage an appropriately nuanced comparison of the legal traditions.

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