This article develops an institutional approach to the study of courts of law in colonial and post-colonial settings. Drawing on new institutional theory in organization studies, I argue that these courts often operate in an environment that is not only legally pluralistic but also institutionally pluralistic. Rather than inhabiting a single, coherent institutional field, many of them belong simultaneously to at least two institutional fields: a state-law institutional field and an indigenous one. Consequently, they are subject to contradictory pressures and demands, to which they respond by developing an especially dynamic and multifaceted legal culture. In other words, these courts reflect and embody the pluralism of their environment. To illustrate this argument, I examine sharī’a courts in contemporary Israel, which operate in a colonial-like setting characterized by both legal and institutional pluralism. I analyze two legal reforms that were promoted in these courts in the last few years, and attribute them to the courts’ need to maneuver between contradictory pressures originating in two different institutional fields they belong to. Such institutional analysis, I contend, can help shed light on judicial policies that may initially seem irrational and incoherent.
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