Field Notes: Illegality

This month’s Field Notes asks four contributors to reflect on the anthropological interest in illegality. Traditional anthropological studies approached law as an ordering set of rules and practices that helped to maintain and reproduce the social order. Contemporary scholars, however, have suggested that illegality has become the norm rather than the exception, and the law has become disorderly and disordering, especially in postcolonial, neoliberal, and post-neoliberal contexts (Comaroff and Comaroff 2006). Rather than treating illegality as a form of individual or collective deviance, anthropologists have investigated how different kinds of illegal practices are produced, as well as the social and cultural implications of illegality for groups, states, and social processes. Recent studies have considered the undocumenting of people, land, and labor (De Genova 2002; Coutin 2000), the informalization of states and economies (Gandolfo 2013), corruption and organized crime (Nuijten and Anders 2007), and extra-juridical violence (Taussig 2003; Goldstein 2004). 

Our contributors have been asked to consider the following questions, and to add their own: What does anthropology have to teach us about illegality? How do illegalities shape and define subjectivities, populations, landscapes, and mobilities? What are the implications of the normalization of illegality? Is there anything novel about illegality, and why has this become such a central concern for anthropologists? What kinds of analytical and methodological approaches does this focus encourage and foreclose?


Provocation: Daniel Goldstein (Rutgers University)

Translation: Vibhuti Ramachandran (New York University)

Deviation: Daniela Gandolfo (Wesleyan)

Integration: Alan Smart (University of Calgary) 


Comaroff, Jean, and John L. Comaroff, eds. 2006. Law and Disorder in the Postcolony. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Coutin, Susan Bibler. 2000. Legalizing Moves: Salvadoran Immigrants' Struggle for U.S. Residency. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

Gandolfo, Daniella. 2013. "Formless: A Day at Lima's Office of Formalization." Cultural Anthropology 28, no. 2: 1–35.

De Genova, Nicholas P. 2002. "Migrant 'Illegality' and Deportability in Everyday Life." Annual Review of Anthropology 31, no. 1: 419–47.

Goldstein, Daniel M. 2012. Outlawed: Between Security and Rights in a Bolivian City. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Nuijten, Monique, and Gerhard Anders, eds. 2007. Corruption and the Secret of Law: a Legal Anthropological Perspective. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate.

Taussig, Michael. 2003. Law in a Lawless Land: Diary of a Limpieza in Colombia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Photo by Tiana Bakić Hayden

Posts in This Series

Illegality: Integration

Illegality: Deviation

Illegality: Translation

Illegality: Provocation