Skip to content

Law, social change and semi-autonomous social fields

May 15, 2010

Falk Moore, Sally (1978) Law and social change: the semi-autonomous social field as an appropriate subject of study. In Law as Process: An Anthropological Approach. London: Routledge.

Social fields typically studied by anthropologists are semi-autonomous: they can generate customs, rules and symbols internally but are ‘vulnerable to rules and decisions and other forces’ from the wider world, p. 55. Understanding the processes whereby endogenous rules are effective is important, as these are the very processes that will often determine whether or not state-made legal rules end up being adopted within the social field, p. 57. In turn you need to examine how social fields articulate with one another, as in complex societies fields are interdependent, p. 57-8.

Individuals belong to various social fields that mediate their relations with the body politic, p. 56.

Barth (1966) transactionalist model focussed on emergent norms from within a given field, but neglects how state laws impinge on fields that already have customs and rules, p. 58. Today legislation often intended to direct change but often unintended consequences – existing social relations tend to be stronger than new laws, p. 58.

Example 1: dress industry in New York

There is mutual obligation within this social field, both legal and non-legal. Profit-making impossible unless basic union contracts regularly broken to accommodate nature of business with its cycles of hectic activity alternating with slack. All in it together: contractor, trade union rep, workers… Gifts/bribes part of moral not legal obligations. ‘Fictive friendships’ integral to process of allocating scarce resources.

This complex, the operation of the social field, is to a significant extent self-regulating, self-enforcing, and self-propelling within a certain legal, political, economic, and social environment, p. 63.

Some rules imported from wider society, others homemade; these are the ‘customs of the trade’, p. 63. Insiders can mobilise or threaten to mobilise external forces in their dealings with one another – but legal rules only small part of whole picture. Participants comply with rules of semi-autonomous field (legal, non-legal and illegal) because they don’t want to be left out of the money-making ‘game’, p. 64.

Example 2: The Chagga of Mount Kilimanjaro

Since 1920s partial cash economy around coffee. Tanzania good example of state-directed attempts at social change via legislation but coffee-related changes and land scarcity owing to population explosion not a result of the new postcolonial, socialist legislation. Traditional relations, too, resilient to central government efforts at changing them, p. 66.

So big change in past few decades not changes to land law (which still largely customary) but unplanned pop-to-land ratio, p. 67. Because few opportunities to buy land, this had tightened lineage system and strengthened customary law around mutual rights and obligations of kin and neighbours. In terms of kin clustering of most families, not much ‘modernisation’ in evidence. Unless law changes people’s relationships to one another, it won’t effect meaningful change, p. 70.

Key social formation is the ‘lineage-neighbourhood complex’ which is ‘an effective rule-making and sanction-applying social nexus’ even if not part of state apparatus, p. 72.

State introduced ten-house cell system with locally elected leaders but this merely added a new strand to relations that were already multiplex, p. 73. This system makes little difference to the ‘permeable but dominant’ Chagga ‘lineage-neighbourhood complex’, p. 74.

Another example was efforts to abolish chiefdom via legislation. Although formally they succeeded, informally the chiefly families continued to prosper and their children joined the emerging literate elites. The chiefly offices may have gone, but powerful extended networks still in place, p. 76.


Concept of ‘semi-autonomous social field’ reveals link between ‘the internal workings of an observable social field and its points of articulation with a larger setting’, p. 78. Continuum running from total autonomy to total domination of social fields in modern states, but in reality virtually all fields somewhere in between, p. 79.

A lot of legislation is piecemeal and adopted into fields unevenly, p. 79. ‘A court of legislature can make custom law. A semi-autonomous social field can make law its custom’, p. 79.

Lineage-neighbourhood complex among Chagga suggests that semi-autonomous fields will tend to resist any undermining of their previous autonomy. Previous scholarship has overemphasised state laws at the expense of ‘spontaneous’ rules emerging out of social life, p. 80.

Semi-autonomous fields will vary in their lifespan, conscious design (e.g. committees, admin depts, action groups), how bottom-up in their evolution (e.g. out of markets, neighbourhoods etc from a history of transactions), p 81.

Much more research needed into state-enforceable law and social life, esp. how relates to other types of effective rules. Model presented here one way into this question, p. 81.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: