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Using Systems Theory to Study Legal Pluralism: What Could Be Gained?


  • Richard Nobles,

  • David Schiff

  • We wish to thank our Queen Mary colleagues, Roger Cotterrell and Prakash Shah, Michael King of Reading University, and Andrew Halpin of the National University of Singapore for their constructive comments on an earlier draft of this article. We also wish to thank the editors and reviewers of Law & Society Review. Please address correspondence to Richard Nobles, Queen Mary University of London, Mile End Road, London E1 4NS; e-mail:; and David Schiff, Queen Mary University of London, Mile End Road, London E1 4NS; e-mail:


This article examines the ability of modern systems theory to provide a foundation for understanding the problematic notion of legal pluralism, and to the ability of scholars to apply that understanding to engage in the study of pluralistic legal orders. In particular, it develops the observations of systems theory of the relationship between state law and violence by adopting one of its linked ideas, that of structural coupling. It also considers the role played by translation when law is identified by reference to the application of the legal code: legal/illegal. The whole analysis is underpinned by systems theory's account of the differences between studying premodern and modern societies.