Anthropology of law, legal consciousness studies, human rights, family law, equality/discrimination, anthropology of the state, public services, judicial institutions, legal itineraries, legal professionals.
West Africa (Benin & Ghana), Belgium, France
Sophie Andreetta studied anthropology at the University of Liège, then obtained a master’s degree in International Politics and Human Rights from City University London. In 2011, she received a doctoral fellowship from the Belgian Fund for Scientific Research. Her project focused on the implementation of the Beninese Code on Persons and Family, more specifically on the itineraries of those who decided to take inheritance disputes to court in Cotonou. Her research showed that in inheritance cases, judicial procedures are more about negotiating a new place within the family and, by extension, a new way of sharing property, than they are about following the law and legal decisions to the letter. Her work delves into the work of judges, the everyday functioning of the courts, and the role of legal professionals and their interactions with customers in the production of ‘justice’ as a public service. It also emphasizes the symbolic power of the state and the place of formal rules and institutions that people are able to mobilize in order to challenge family hierarchies, despite the common association of public administrations with corruption and informal dynamics.
Drawing on the idea that people use the laws in manifold ways, Andreetta’s current project analyses the processes through which human dignity is defined and performed by the Belgian administrations and judiciary. She explores the ways in which different sets of actors contribute to building and deciding on social assistance cases, examines the trajectories of the litigants, the role of their intermediaries, the work of the judges, and the processes of enforcing legal decisions. Her research also looks at the place of law in the decision-making processes of welfare services, the way law is used and understood by ordinary citizens and by legal professionals, and eventually reflects on the social and political effects of litigation, regardless of whether a given trial was won or lost.
Based on her earlier work in West Africa, Andreetta also obtained a postdoctoral fellowship with the Fund for Scientific Research at the University of Liège. Her project focuses on African bar associations, the social and political circumstances of their development, and on the professional paths and social status of their members in Benin and Ghana. It also looks at the everyday work of the members of the bar and their interactions with clients in order to better understand the place of the service professions (les professions libérales in particular) in contemporary African societies and their role in the appropriation of legal reforms and in the production of public services.
Why Law & Anthropology?
Looking at the everyday functioning of state courts, I realized that conducting the ethnography of legal institutions requires an in-depth understanding of the legal frameworks within which they operate. The dynamic interaction between law and anthropology allows us to reflect on the ways in which laws are appropriated and on how people – whether they are lawyers, litigants or civil servants – use laws to produce certain social and political effects.