Adamson Hoebel

Edward Adamson Hoebel in the United States

“Edward Adamson Hoebel (1906-1993) was an anthropologist and educator best known for his studies of the legal systems of pre-literate societies. Hoebel early became a scholar on the legal cultures of the Plains Indians, including the Comanches and Cheyennes. Boas put Hoebel in contact with Karl N. Llewellyn, a Professor of Law at Columbia. Llewellyn, a legal realist who believed that the heart of law is in how a society actually handles disputes rather than in written legal codes per se, was interested in Hoebel’s ideas and agreed to serve as his advisor. Hoebel did field research on Comanche legal systems at the Santa Fe Laboratory of Anthropology (Ralph Linton, director), and his dissertation findings were published in an article titled “The Political Organization and Law-ways of the Comanche Indians.”

After graduation from Columbia, Hoebel and Llewellyn continued their fruitful collaboration. Together they developed the trouble-case method for investigating the legal systems of non-literate societies, which they presented in “The Cheyenne Way: Conflict and Case Law in Primitive Jurisprudence” (1941). Central to this method was the concept of law-jobs, which operate regardless of whether a legal system is considered primitive or advanced. To Hoebel, as well as to many legal scholars, the ideas presented in “The Cheyenne Way” suggested applications to the legal systems of contemporary literate societies. Hoebel pursued such a line of research in his studies of Pakistan’s legal systems and through his involvement in activities such as the World Law Project, a pilot study that sought to compare legal systems throughout the world.” (1)

“Between 1943 and 1949, Hoebel worked with Llewellyn to study the law-ways of the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico. Through these studies, Hoebel and Llewellyn were able to assist the Pueblo Indians in framing their legal codes in a way that would be understandable and acceptable in federal and state courts.

Llewellyn (1893–1962) was the most important figure associated with the American Legal Realism of the 1920s and 1930s, which held that the law was indeterminate on the basis of statutes and precedents alone and required study of the how disputes are resolved in practice. The ‘sociological’ wing of legal realism championed by Llewellyn held that in American law dispute resolution was strongly influenced by norms such as those in mercantile practice.” (2)

Max Gluckman… “used and further developed Llewellyn that Hoebel’s “case study method” of analysis of instances of social interaction to infer rules and assumptions used in trouble cases, and the influence of social norms and conflicts outside the law.” (2)

“In 1954 Hoebel contributed his major book on legal anthropology, on broadening the legal realist tradition to include non-Western nations. In doing so, he concluded with a statement about the need for contributions from the comparative legal realism tradition if progress was to be made toward world governance. Eclipsed by the cold war, even the legal realist concepts of what constitutes law and government have failed to make an impact on Political Science and the concept of the state in the contemporary period. Hoebel’s working definition of what is law is worth citing: “A social norm is legal if its neglect or infraction is regularly met, in threat or in fact, by the application of physicial force by an individual or group possessing the socially recognized privilege of so acting.” Because “government without law is limited to the administration of services”, one of the implications of the legal realist tradition is that it is not necessarily in the capital city that one must look to define the government of a modern nation but to how the law “will develop its shape in the arena of action,” “hammered out as specific issues catalyze action for the trouble case at hand.” Hoebel’s definition, unlike that of neoconservative thought and its invocation of Leo Strauss for justification of government deception, is that to be legal, law must be based on social norms, and norms on agreements within communities, rather than the dominance of the few.”(4)


His books include “Anthropology: The Study of Man” (1949), which was a widely used textbook for decades, and “The Cheyennes: Indians of the Great Plains” (1961).

The books of which he was a co-author include “The Cheyenne Way: Conflict and Case Law in Primitive Jurisprudence” (1941) and “The Comanches: Lords of the South Plains” (1952).

Trend of Law

“The Trend of the Law” is the concluding chapter of the “The Law of Primitive Man”.

Hoebel, a neo-evolutionist, developed his “trend of law” concept, an overview of the evolution of law, in 1954. Through several early German writers, the vision of universal historical laws was rejected, but it was resurrected later by neo-evolutionists, including Hoebel. The concept ‘trend of law’ does not mean unilinear evolution but, viewed globally, implies a pattern of transition from the simple to the more complex, since simpler societies (as the indian communities which Hoebel was working on) needed less law.

Legal Pluralism

See Legal Pluralism


  1. E. Adamson Hoebel Papers,
  2. E. Adamson Hoebel,
  3. Idem.
  4. Idem.

See Also

References and Further Reading

  • Law and Society, 10th ed. Steven Vago, Pearson
  • Hoebel, E. Adamson, Anthropology and the Human Experience, 5th ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 1979).
  • Cohoe, A Cheyenne sketchbook, commentary by E. Adamson Hoebel and Karen Daniels Petersen (Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1964).
  • K.N. Llewellyn and E. Adamson Hoebel, The Cheyenne Way : conflict and case law in primitive jurisprudence (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961).
  • Ernest Wallace and E. Adamson Hoebel, The Comanches : Lords of the South Plains (Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1952).
  • E. Adamson Hoebel, Man in the Primitive World: An Introduction to Anthropology (New York : McGraw-Hill, 1949).
  • Hoebel, Adamson E. (1954). The Law of Primitive Man. Harvard, MA: Atheneum.
  • Hoebel, Adamson E. (1978). The Cheyennes. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Group/Thomson Learning.

Adamson Hoebel: Open and Free Legal Research of US Law

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