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As a scholarly project, global legal pluralism has been extraordinarily successful, and it is not difficult to see why. Legal pluralists had long observed that, in any given social context, people are regulated by multiple different legal and quasi-legal regimes and that these regimes are sometimes associated with formal state law, but sometimes they are not. Global legal pluralism took that insight and applied it to the post–Cold War international and transnational arena at just the right moment. Circa 1998, international and transnational institutions were proliferating, industry standard-setting bodies and corporate codes of conduct were taking on new prominence, and the rise of online interaction meant that social life was increasingly deterritorialized and that almost any piece of electronic data or any online interaction could implicate multiple regulatory regimes. This complex web of regulatory bodies included some regimes that were state-based, some that were built and maintained by nonstate actors, some that fell within the purview of local authorities and jurisdictional entities, and some that involved international courts, tribunals, arbitral bodies, and regulatory organizations.

Global legal pluralism provided scholars with a theoretical lens for conceptualizing the complex interactions among these various legal and quasi-legal entities. If authority and jurisdiction are never absolute but are instead always relative and contested, then global legal pluralism studies that contestation, sees how regulatory norms move across territorial borders, analyzes networks of influence, and tries to tease out changes in legal consciousness over time—the often unnoticed and subtle shifts in people’s taken-for-granted sense of the way things are or have to be. And, moving from the descriptive to the normative, communities drawing on the insights of global legal pluralism might sometimes affirmatively seek to create or preserve spaces for productive interaction among multiple, overlapping communities and legal systems by developing procedural mechanisms, institutions, and practices that aim to bring those communities and systems into dialogue rather than dictating norms hierarchically. Such an approach is not derived from any overarching universal set of substantive truths and does not require a commitment to particular substantive values. They only require a pragmatic willingness to engage with other possible normative systems and potentially to restrain one’s own voice for the sake of forging more workable, longer-lasting relationships and harmony among multiple communities. In this way, law becomes a forum for dialogue across difference. Thus, global legal pluralism provides a useful framework for both designing and evaluating legal institutions and procedures, separate from their substantive aims.

This introductory chapter outlines the main themes of this extraordinary body of scholarly work and seeks to encourage scholars studying different substantive areas of law to use global legal pluralism as a theoretical framework that might help them to conceptualize both the descriptive and normative issues they face.

GW Paper Series


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