Exploring Other Forms of “Normal” and the Legal System

Interview with Head of Research Group Mareike Schmidt

April 08, 2024

Beijing, Basel, Hamburg, Berlin – Mareike Schmidt’s career has taken her all over the world. At the beginning of the year she joined the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology as a Research Group Head. In her research she examines questions such as what the current rapid social and environmental changes mean for the legal system. Her research group is titled ‘Transformations in Private Law: Culture, Climate, and Technology’. We talked with her about her move to Halle and what her work can tell us about whether law is managing to keep up with our changing world.

Mareike, what do you do at the MPI and how long have you been here?
I joined the Department ‘Law & Anthropology’ on 1 January this year as a new Head of the Research Group ‘Transformations in Private Law’. My main research project is titled “Contract Law’s Cultural Embeddedness” and looks at the multifarious cultural influences on private law in general and contract law in particular.

What did you do previously?
I studied law in Würzburg and Berlin. After passing my first state examination I spent a year in Beijing, where I obtained an LLM in Chinese law. I subsequently received my doctorate in Basel, passed my second state examination, and worked as a postdoc. Most recently, I was employed as a junior professor at the University of Hamburg.

What excites you about joining the MPI? What inspired you to apply here?
In my research and my habilitation project I am interested in how the legal system deals with increasing cultural diversity and difference. This is a topic that isn’t given much attention in traditional legal studies for the key areas of private law. But here at the MPI and in particular in the Department ‘Law & Anthropology’, I can discuss these matters with many other researchers who are working on similar topics. I am therefore greatly looking forward to the opportunity to share ideas and perspectives with them.

What methods do you use for conducting your research?
I analysed around 500 court rulings that involved cultural differences and required resolving questions about matters that deviate from what is considered normal and usual in German lifeworlds.

What does this look like exactly? Can you give an example?
In one case that I examined, the court had to decide about the validity of a contract for a shamanic healing ritual. The fee stipulated in the contract was very high and there was significant doubt about whether the promised service could in fact have been performed and how the result of the service could be verified. The plaintiff therefore argued that the contract was invalid and she wanted her down payment returned. The question here is how the existing legal system deals with such issues and what basis the courts use to arrive at a decision. One thing is clear: in the future the courts will be confronted ever more frequently with such situations where the attitudes and practices deviate from the “normal” – that is, from the usual or common practice.

And how did this case turn out? What did the court decide?
The court of first instance judged the contract to be valid. The plaintiff appealed this decision. In the appellate court the parties came to a settlement and a portion of her payment was refunded to her.

Your research is itself quite diverse and deviates from what is considered normal and usual in legal studies. How has your work been received by colleagues in your field?
There is increasing interest in my research topics. As society becomes more diverse, it is also becoming more and more clear that traditional legal doctrine and the usual interpretations of law are reaching their limits. With our research approach, I believe that we can identify ways to overcome these limits.

What limits do you mean?
When norms and values deviate from those that we are familiar with, there is a danger that we will not be able to appropriately assess them and the life practices based on them. And then it also becomes difficult to understand the matter that is the basis for the legal judgment. This is why it is so important for courts to engage with behaviours and practices that are not considered conventional. Using my empirical research, I hope to show in what ways the legal system can benefit from taking into account intercultural aspects.

What are you working on right now?
I am working on a project funded by a grant by the Volkswagen Foundation that looks at how the legal system responds to social and environmental changes. I examine the influence of digital transformations and climate change on law, and, in the other direction, how law influences these processes of transformation.

In addition to this project, you will also be leading a new research group. What is the focus of the group?
The research group will focus primarily on the application of contract law in culturally diverse societies. In the empirical part of the project, we will examine how legal practitioners handle the cultural embedding of contract law. In addition to analysing court records, the data will include interviews with judges and lawyers.

And what happens next?
The group funding includes two positions for doctoral candidates. I have finished the selection process and as soon as the researchers arrive we will get to work. This should happen sometime in the next several weeks.


Dr. Mareike Schmidt
Head of Research Group
Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology
Advokatenweg 36, 06114 Halle (Saale)
Tel.: 0345 2927-370
Mail: mschmidt@eth.mpg.de

PR contact
Stefan Schwendtner
Press and Public Relations
Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology
Advokatenweg 36, 06114 Halle (Saale)
Tel.: 0345 2927-425
E-mail: schwendtner@eth.mpg.de

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