Cultural Expertise and Socio-Legal Studies: Volume 78

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Special Issue


Table of contents

(11 chapters)

Part I Cultural Expertise with(out) Cultural Experts


In this chapter, I examine the informal cultural expertise utilized in the District Courts and Courts of Appeal of two Finnish cities. I argue that the parties that serve as providers of “cultural expertise” are manifold and include eyewitnesses, interpreters, and even the courts themselves. I examine the challenges regarding the informal use of cultural expertise, drawing from debates that consider the relationship between an “insider-expert” and a “trained-expert” in acting as a cultural mediator.


This chapter contributes to a corpus of legal–anthropological studies concerning the role of cultural experts in legal institutions. It begins by identifying the reasons behind the fragile collaboration between Italian courts and cultural experts and outlining some of the consequences of this relationship. It then presents a collection of cases involving cultural experts including a focus on the L’Aquila trial recounted from first-hand experience by Antonello Ciccozzi, the anthropologist who acted as expert consultant. The conclusions attempt to summarize the “state of the art” of cultural expertise in Italian courts today and call for greater collaboration between law and anthropology as a means of guaranteeing a fair trial.

Part II Sites of Cultural Expertise


Cultural expertise can play a relevant role in countries where cultural diversity marks social life, as in the case of Portugal, a country where migration always characterized its past and continues to influence the present, and where the presence of ethnic and religious minorities must be noticed. In this chapter, we aim to survey the use of cultural mediation in Portuguese law, as well as case law and culture centered mediation out of courts, in order to understand whether the concept of cultural expertise, in a broad sense, might be useful. Although it is a “contested concept,” culture is understood, for the purposes of this chapter, in a dynamic and non-essentialist sense, as a valuable asset providing context and significance to people’s lives. Assuming that the State is not “culturally neutral” and that its institutions somehow reflect the established culture, issues of equality and demands for cultural recognition will necessarily arise. However, it is the duty of the State to respect and protect cultural identity. Even though cultural expertise may become relevant in several domains of the State, particular attention is given in this chapter to the role played by cultural arguments and cultural expertise in courts in Portugal. Cultural expertise is also very relevant for social intervention, and it is mobilized in the processes of cultural mediation. These processes have a low level of institutionalization in Portugal, since it is not routinely recognized in the implementation of public policies as an autonomous professional profile.


The paper first, indicates the references made by Greek legal order to different kind of cultural experts. Adopting a broader sociolegal definition of cultural expertise, it also refers to “cultural mediator,” a notion which has been introduced by the European Fund for the Integration of third-country nationals which launched the first educational programs for their training in Greece. The so-called cultural mediators should facilitate communication between third-country nationals and Greek Administration, the respect of their rights and thus in long term their integration. Secondly, the chapter exposes the experiences made by Asylum Service employees and lawyers of NGOs involved in the granting or refusing asylum proceedings. It will try to show how cultural mediation for asylum seekers works in action by exploring how do lawyers and officers involved in the process of asylum granting describe it. They also give their opinion about the training prerequisites for someone to work as a mediator and they refer to some common topics why cultural experts are mostly needed. Thirdly, the chapter presents the joint arguments of Greek anthropological theory and the political theory about EU regarding the importance of the effort to understand, to respect, and to integrate the culturally and politically different refugees. Cultural expertise may help Greek State and Society in learning how to respect the principle of equality and difference. At the same time, it may serve as a venue to solidify EU as a multiethnic political community and a cosmopolitan legal order.

Part III Comparative Perspectives on Cultural Expertise


This chapter discusses adjudication, expertise, and cultural difference as it appears in criminal court cases concerning female genital cutting (FGM) in the EU, as reported in a 2015 comparative overview. It begins with the distinction between typical and atypical FGM cases; a distinction that connects court cases to the cultural realities of the practicing communities, suggesting that the lack of cultural knowledge can cause unnecessary suffering to families and/or individuals who wrongly undergo prosecution in alleged FGM cases. A contrario, the intervention of experts in FGM court cases could be a positive approach to assessing the legitimacy of public intervention in certain cases.


Based on extensive empirical fieldworks conducted in Belgian and French family justice courtrooms in order to explain how culture and ethnicity are processed and understood in the daily reasoning and assumptions of legal professionals, this chapter analyzes different forms in which culture and ethnicity are framed in family law cases. Understanding how and along which dimensions these elements do vary in judicial reasoning constitutes the preliminary but necessary step before assessing the need of cultural expertise as such. In this attempt, we shed light on a scope of variations between complex and non-deterministic models of culture – consistent with contemporary anthropology literature – and more simplistic ones, in which culture and identity are conceived as fixed realities. Throughout this path between norms, facts, and stereotypes, we illustrate not only the multiplicity and complexity of forms which cultural elements can take in the exercise of family justice, but also the risks that some significances may carry with them and the urgent need to improve more fluid and dispassionate conceptions of cultural diversity before developing “cultural expertise” as such, an expertise that could otherwise reinforce stereotypical and fixed views of “cultures.”

Part IV Cultural Expertise in Non-European Contexts


British colonization of Australia had lasting consequences for Australia’s legal system. Although designed as a “one law for all system” based on the English common law, the reality was, and is, that there have always been people regulating their lives according to their own distinctive culture and religion. Recognition of de facto legal pluralism, has only recently given rise to instances of de jure legal recognition. The latter necessitated a role for cultural expertise in a range of legal cases. The first considered is how social science expertise was employed in redressing the dispossession of the continent’s first peoples: indigenous Australians and Torres Strait Islanders. The landmark case of Mabo No 2 laid the legal ground for native title land ownership which fueled a demand for cultural experts in indigenous traditions, laws, and customs. The second aspect is Australia’s response to recent immigration from non-European nations, including from Muslim countries. Many Muslims continue to regulate their interpersonal relationships exclusively, or partially, by principles of Islamic law and their “homeland” culture. This is particularly evident in family matters and the prism for exploring the nascent role for cultural expertise is through post-divorce parenting orders. The third issue is the extent to which a court can accept an accused’s cultural practice or religious belief as a defense to a criminal act or omission. In all three, who is a “cultural expert” can be contentious. While cultural expertise in indigenous matters is well established, the role for cultural experts in the resolution of family disputes and criminal cases is just emerging.


South Africa’s mixed, pluralistic legal order demands a nuanced approach to cultural expertise in litigation. Culture in general and cultural expertise in particular have always played an important role in all areas of law, both state and non-state, and a rich collection of jurisprudence is available to serve as illustration. Even though both the common law and the customary law are both recognized legal systems, they are treated differently by the judiciary. The general rule is that judicial notice must be taken of the common law rules and that judicial notice of customary law may only be taken “in so far as such law can be ascertained readily and with sufficient certainty.” The ascertainment of customary law provides a challenge to the judiciary because of its adaptive inherent flexibility and indeterminate nature, especially where the rules are oral or so-called “living” customary law. Cultural expertise also plays an important role in the case of non-state law. A considerable quantity of case law exists where the courts have considered expert evidence regarding the content of certain religious legal systems to provide protection to litigants claiming that they are subject to those systems. The aim of this contribution is to investigate the diverse approaches of the South African courts when it comes to the admissibility of expert evidence in cases where culture (both custom and religion in both state and non-state law) is relevant. The fact that the South African legal system has its roots firmly in Western law and has been confronted with cultural diversity for a very long time might provide some lessons to the Western world, even if those lessons are only to prevent it from making the same mistakes as the South African legal system has made or might still be doing.

Part V Suggestions for a Way Forward


This chapter explores expert witnessing in anthropology and the raison d’être of cultural expertise as an integrated socio-legal concept that accounts for the contribution of social sciences to the resolution of disputes and the protection of human rights. The first section of this chapter provides a short historical outline of the occurrence and reception of anthropological expertise as expert witnessing. The second section surveys the theoretical reflections on anthropologists’ engagement with law. The third section explores the potential for anthropological expertise as a broader socio-legal notion in the common law and civil law legal systems. The chapter concludes with the opportunity and raison d’être of cultural expertise grounded on a skeptical approach to culture. It suggests that expert witnessing has been viewed mainly from a technical perspective of applied social sciences, which was necessary to set the legal framework of cultural experts’ engagement with law, but had the consequence of entrenching the impossibility of a comprehensive study of anthropological expert witnessing. While this chapter adopts a skeptical approach to culture, it also argues the advantages of an interdisciplinary approach that leads to an integrated definition of cultural expertise.

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Studies in Law, Politics, and Society
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Emerald Publishing Limited
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