Legal amateurism

Annelise Riles*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

5 Scopus citations


One of the recurring complaints about the American legal academy is that it is amateuristic. Scholars from other fields complain about the vacuousness of legal academics’ analytical categories, the casual way data are made to fit arguments, or the lack of commitment to particular problems as American legal scholars casually hop from topic to topic or field to field to keep up with the hottest trends and current events. Many American law professors see themselves more as general social commentators, advisors to policy makers and industry, and overall “smart guys” than as traditional academics. Another common complaint is that legal academics routinely deploy paradigms that have been long discredited and outdated in the social sciences. For example, socio-legal scholars are often left to scratch their heads when confronted with the casual way property scholars use non-Western legal cultures to make inferences about earlier moments in the development of Euro-American law. This kind of stageist evolutionism went out of favor in the social sciences in the 1920s. For decades now, the same critiques of legal studies have been heard in the social and humanistic sciences and, still, the old methods persist. My own career began with a quite naïve ambition to professionalize this amateuristic discipline. As a young anthropologist, it was downright infuriating to me that many law professors did not read much; that they did not take an interest in the details; that they seemed more engaged by acts of self-promotion than by the furthering of knowledge about the law. Somewhere along the way, however, I was forced to confront the realization that an anthropologist of law should take legal amateurism as seriously as any other knowledge practice one might study ethnographically. Indeed, I want to suggest that an appreciation of legal amateurism is critical to an understanding of contemporary legal thought. In particular, legal amateurism gives us insight into the incompleteness of the so-called realist revolution in American law. The amateurism of legal thought was a key target of legal realism, with its ambitions to professionalize legal thinking through engagement with the social sciences from the standpoint of the modernist cult of expertise. In this vision, the link of law to the social required greater expertise and specialization in the disciplines of the social.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationSearching for Contemporary Legal Thought
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)9781316584361
ISBN (Print)9781107150676
StatePublished - Jan 1 2017

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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