This article reviews the broadening scope of anthropological studies of law between 1949 and 1999, and considers how the political background of the period may be reflected in anglophone academic perspectives. At the mid-century, the legal ideas and practices of non-Western peoples, especially their modes of dispute management, were studied in the context of colonial rule. Two major schools of thought emerged and endured. One regarded cultural concepts as central in the interpretation of law. The other was more concerned with the political and economic milieu, and with self-serving activity. Studies of law in non-Western communities continued, but from the 1960s and 1970s a new stream turned to issues of class and domination in Western legal institutions. An analytic advance occurred when attention turned to the fact that the state was not the only source of obligatory norms, but coexisted with many other sites where norms were generated and social control exerted. This heterogeneous phenomenon came to be called ‘legal pluralism’. The work of the half-century has culminated in broadly conceived, politically engaged studies that address human rights, the requisites of democracy, and the obstacles to its realization.