The Cambridge History of Latin American Law in Global Perspective


In the last two decades, Latin American Studies, not least the research on law and society in Latin America, have experienced dynamic growth. Yet, the study of Latin American law has a long and important tradition. Beginning in the colonial period and throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, numerous scholars narrated how European law was introduced and locally implemented by the various imperial powers as well as how it interacted with pre-existing normative traditions, including African norms. They surveyed the legal changes introduced by the new independent Latin American states in the early 19th century and examined what had transpired since their establishment.

While these accounts were indeed complex and interesting, there was a strong tendency to focus on a specific empire (eg during the colonial period) or on a particular locality or state in a later period. In those cases where relations to other parts of the globe were examined, it was more often than not only to affirm the hegemony of the European powers and their laws, both during the colonial period and in its aftermath. When scholars described how examples from outside the continent contributed to local developments, such examinations were anything but systematic. These studies illuminated a particular institution, law or country, yet rarely did they insert Latin American developments into larger narratives. It is only very recently that some have started asking about how developments in Latin America, for example, in the fields of human rights or transitional justice, contributed to global conversations about the law.

This has resulted in a situation in which no works describing what transpired in Latin America by tracing a common Latin American narrative have been produced. Moreover, there are no volumes situating this narrative in a global perspective by showing how local law continuously and resiliently interacted with continent-wide as well as global developments and thus formed part of conversations also taking place in Europe, Africa, Asia and North America.

The edited volume ‘The Cambridge History of Latin American Law in Global Perspective’ seeks to address these lacunas by proposing an approach that will cover the legal trajectory of the continent from the earliest phases of the pre-colonial period to the present. It asks both about the commonalities between the Latin American legal developments and how legal developments in Latin America were related to developments in other parts of the globe. Rather than offering another description of the major fields within law (contract law, criminal law, etc), of legal actors (jurists, judges, notaries), or the legal mechanism employed to discriminate against individuals or groups (ethnic, racial or gender classifications), the volume examines the legal context(s) within which these operated. It asks how norms were produced, who produced them and what happened afterwards.

The book consists of seven parts and an introduction. As a collective project, the contributions are written by a diverse group of 16 scholars based in Latin America, Europe and the United States. An initial online meeting between the authors, editors and the coordinator took place on 8 March 2021. The meeting served as an opportunity for contributors to meet one another, as well as discuss basic concepts and common grounds. A hybrid meeting was held in March 2022. The volume was published in January 2024, in print and as an  electronic publication in open access.

A book discussion took place in February 2024, at Yale University, Law School.

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