Stephan Sonnenberg, ‘Contract Law as Culture in Bhutan: Modernity, Tradition and the Prerogative to Preserve Culture’

This paper draws on the author’s research as a member of JSW Law’s Legal Needs Assessment, supplemented by an analysis of 43 ‘elder interviews’ that students in the JSW Law classes of 2022 and 2023 completed as part of their first-year Contracts course.

It analyses the premise not of law and culture (in other words, the interrelationship between law as a distinct topic of analysis and culture as another), but rather the idea of law as culture. Legal anthropologists, guided by the definition of culture as a way of making meaning of the world around us, point out that the law serves to do exactly that: the law is – at its core – a ‘meaning-making’ enterprise. Understood in those terms, one begins to wonder whether it is necessary to analyse periods of rapid legislative change not just through a legal, but also through a cultural lens. Bhutan has in the past decades undergone an explosion of legislative innovation and change, much of it driven by a partnership between the international rule of law development community and Bhutanese policymakers. The question of whether this cycle of legislative innovation has cultural implications for Bhutan takes on a particular urgency given that one of the four key priorities for the national development strategy of Gross National Happiness (‘GNH’) is, in fact, the preservation of culture.

The paper examines the premise of law as culture through an examination of the impacts of Bhutan’s recent reforms in the area of contract law in Bhutanese towns and villages. It presents a series of examples where the ‘meaning-making’ values and assumptions implicit to Bhutan’s modern contract law diverge from their customary equivalents. The paper then concludes with some recommendations on how a GNH-based approach to legal reform might differ from the approach typically used in contemporary Bhutan.

Sonnenberg, Stephan, Contract Law as Culture in Bhutan: Modernity, Tradition and the Prerogative to Preserve Culture (February 21, 2021), Journal of Gross National Happiness and Law, Volume 1:1 (273-304) Thimphu, Bhutan.

First posted 2021-12-10 09:50:37

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