nl en

Legal Pluralism in the Global South and Global North


Admission requirements

Admission to the Master’s programme Law and Society.


In this course students learn to analyze and understand the existence of normative systems other than the state's, their nature and functioning, and how they interact with state and society. To what extent do they offer a viable alternative for state law, and how do they influence the legitimacy of, access to and use of state law? Such non-state normative orderings include customary law, religious law particularly Islamic law, but also all kinds of social norms in for instance professional organizations, sects, industries etc. Legal pluralism can be the result of the imposition of colonial laws on societies with indigenous legal systems, of the continued adherence of immigrant groups to their own normative systems, or of state regulation of any group with its own normative order. Building upon and expanding knowledge of concepts and theories in legal anthropology and sociology of law, the course introduces the concept of semi-autonomous social field as a tool to describe and understand the behavior of people in normatively pluralistic fields, relating this behavior to questions of legitimacy of the various authority structures in place. The semi-autonomy of social fields, which generate and enforce their own normative orders, poses a serious challenge to the idea of legal engineering, viz. changing society through the enactment of new (state) legislation. Local authority structures, whether of a customary, religious or heterogeneous nature, often possess a local following and legitimacy that state institutions do not possess. States have to grapple with these situations of legal pluralism, and the challenges they pose to a state’s sovereignty and legal supremacy. It also happens that local leaders have lost much local legitimacy, but are propped up by the state. The course considers the methods of incorporation and the effects of recognition of non-state law into the state’s political, legal and institutional framework. It also considers to what extent and how international and national efforts at good governance, democratization and legal reform take into account the non-state values, norms and practices of the societies concerned. The polarizing question as to the role of sharia in western countries makes clear this is an issue of global relevance. Students will be trained to analyze legally pluralistic situations, and to evaluate different types of rule of law and transitional justice interventions in such situations.

Course objectives

Objectives of the course

At the end of this course, students are able to:

  • recognize situations of legal pluralism in various social fields, involving customary, religious or other non-state normative orders, in the global north and south;

  • explain the concept legal pluralism and the central debates surrounding it;

  • contrast various state approaches of recognition or non-recognition of customary and religious justice systems and analyze their impact;

  • appraise the impact of various ways of recording unwritten norms;

  • illustrate the relevance of concepts such as ‘semi-autonomous social field’, ‘customary legal empowerment’ and ‘ethnojustice’ for the field of legal pluralism;

  • apply the knowledge of legal pluralism in practice, for instance by devising strategies for promoting legal certainty for vulnerable groups, or by evaluating the impact of legislation or of rule of law and transitional justice interventions.


The timetable of this course can be found here.

Mode of instruction


  • Number of (2 hour) lectures: 6

  • Names of lecturers: Janine Ubink and guest lecturers

  • Required preparation by students: reading assigned literature and preparing reflection papers


  • Number of (2 hour) seminars: 4

  • Names of instructors: Janine Ubink and guest lecturers

  • Required preparation by students: preparing presentations and reflection papers

Assessment method

Examination form(s)

  • The course requires two reflection papers (30%), a group presentation (individually marked, 30%) and an essay (40%).

  • Students who fail the course, can do a retake of the essay and the reflection papers. There is no retake for the group presentation.

  • All grades are valid for the academic year they were attained.

Submission procedures
To be announced.

Reading list

Obligatory course materials

Literature and course information: all material will be posted on Brightspace.


Students have to register for the lectures and working groups through uSis. With this registration you have access to the digital learning environment of this course in Brightspace. You may register up to 5 calendar days before the first teaching session begins.

Students have to register for exams and retakes through uSis. With this registration you also have access to the digital learning environment of this course in Brightspace You may register up to 10 calendar days before the exam or retake.

Contact information

  • Coordinator: Janine Ubink

  • Work address: KOG (Steenschuur 25 Leiden), room A1.53

  • Telephone number: 071-5277493

  • Email:


  • Institute: Van Vollenhoven Institute for Law, Governance, and Society

  • Department: Institute for the Inter-disciplinary Study of the Law

  • Room number secretary: KOG (Steenschuur 25 Leiden), room B1.14

  • Opening hours: Monday to Thursday and Fridy morning

  • Telephone number secretary: 071-527 7260

  • Email: