Global Institutions, Indigenous Meaning: Lessons from Chinese Law for the New Institutionalism

64 Pages Posted: 17 Jan 2006

See all articles by Ethan Michelson

Ethan Michelson

Maurer School of Law; Indiana University Bloomington, Department of Sociology

Date Written: 2005


China's legal reforms support an oft-told story about the global diffusion of Western institutional forms. A less commonly recounted story, and the one told in this paper, is about the manner in which institutions that at this superficial, symbolic level conform to dominant exogenous models also undergo a process of local transformation through cultural translation. This paper develops a theory of institutional appropriation and indigenization in which meaning-making activity in general and divergence from global institutional models in particular is properly understood as the product of local strategic agency. Three empirical examples from Chinese law - (1) law firm naming conventions and their changes over a ten-year period (1995-2004), (2) the black gowns judges and lawyers have been required to wear in the courtroom since 2001 and 2003 respectively, and (3) the use of the gavel in the courtroom since 2002 - reveal conditions under which the local representation of imported institutions not as foreign transplants but rather as home-grown traditions is strategically produced by the purposive, and often contested, efforts of actors in the marketplace and in the state to define reality in a manner consistent with their respective interests. An implication of the process of appropriation and indigenization is that the adoption of exogenous institutional forms (e.g., Western legality) may serve to reproduce local institutional arrangements (e.g., socialist legality) at least as much as it threatens to undo them.

Keywords: China, globalization, legal system, culture

Suggested Citation

Michelson, Ethan, Global Institutions, Indigenous Meaning: Lessons from Chinese Law for the New Institutionalism (2005). Buffalo Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2006-004, Available at SSRN: or

Ethan Michelson (Contact Author)

Maurer School of Law ( email )

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Indiana University Bloomington, Department of Sociology ( email )

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