The Dog That Barked Rather Quietly: The Role of Law in Social Movement Studies

On Wednesday this week (27th) I gave a talk at a symposium organised by UEA’s School of Politics, Philosophy and Language. The theme of the day was media, activism and politics. I rather went against the grain and spoke about the role & relevance of law for social movement scholars, and activists. I plan in this short blog to outline a couple of the keys points I made

I am a Johnny-Come-Lately to social movement scholarship, having been almost all my academic life rather a dull(ish) doctrinal lawyer, albeit one who has dabbled in the socio-legal aspects of protesting. Probably less of the come-lately, and more of the “train delayed not yet arrived” if I am being honest.

That said, what I have gleaned so far from reading the literature – immersing would be too strong a term – on law and social movements is a double-whammy omission:

  • the dominant focus of law and social movements scholars (whether lawyers or sociologists) is on using law as part of the group’s strategic armoury, what Charles Tilly referred to as repertoire of contention. This, I argued, marginalises its relevance to a whole host of other issues that social movement scholars look at as, say, a structuring force. As Michael McCann put it in his review piece in the Annual Review of Law and Social Science: “many of the more recent studies build on relatively narrow but unarticulated conceptions of law, mostly focusing on litigation outcomes and the roles of lawyers.” (McCann, 2006).
  • and even within the literature in using law, the focus is almost exclusively on legal mobilisation, that is law before and in the courts, either proactively or reactively. This too offers only at best a partial explanation of the role of law within the armoury of an SMO.

Even then, the appearance of law in the literature is still rather nascent, perhaps only in the last decade or so and is very much a US-driven phenomenon. For example, The Blackwell Companion has nothing in its index for law, two pages listed for law enforcement, and two for “justice systems”, and eight pages listed where “legislation” is mentioned. By contrast mass media, mobilisation and movement participation each have entries into tens, along with sub-entries. There are honourable exceptions this side of the pond, such as Graeme Hayes at Aston or Brian Doherty at Keele, and Chris Hilson in the Law School at Reading.

The talk was in three parts. The first sought to provide various alternative perspectives or conceptualisations of law, in addition to it being broadly a study of rules (Where do they come from? What do they assert? How are clashes of rules resolved?). Again as McCann put it “…much scholarship is committed to making claims about law without clearly thinking through the complex, multiple dimensions of what often are recognized as law and legality” (McCann, 2006). I offered law as binary – are you an employee, yes/no? – and law as constitutive, creating relationships, of rights, of duties, establishing definitions and categories. Law is also a schematic – establishing interdependent framework of rules – and structuring responses. We might also conceive of law as a formalised system of dispute resolution, offering order, not the chance of chaos. Lastly, we might conceive of law as concerned with values and norms, with a legitimating function.

The next offered some suggestions as to how law – even in its most rule-maker guise – could shed light on the various interests or research questions SMO scholars have, broadly (and very basically):

  • Initiation: what might trigger someone into acting, and what process is behind turning that atomised individual anger into collective action – how and why and when does a group emerge, and mobilise?
  • Organisation: what form does and should a group take to maximise strength? How does it grow – how does it represent itself / is it represented in order to garner support? How are internal tensions managed?
  • Goals: what are the group’s aims? What counts as success? What factors – opportunity structures – determine success?
  • Operation: what does and should the group do to achieve its aims? What strategies or tactics – repertoires of contention – do/should they adopt? How, why and when might strategies change.

Just taking a few of those. So clearly the law can provide an initiating trigger – such as the legal ban on certain groups voting or on same-sex marriage. Law might provide the background structuring canvas – in common law systems, landowners cannot be forced to use their property or to rent it out; it can, broadly speaking, sit vacant – so a whole squatting movement might grow. It might not be the law on the books that is the problem but the law in action – the discriminatory use of vagrancy laws in the 1970s gave rise to Scrap SUS. Law might also help frame the claim – using the language of rights (disability rights: Vanhala, 2002) or TaxJustice. Law might impose an organisational straitjacket, requiring certain forms (and this is especially so in the labour movement) such as an “organiser” under certain public order laws. It might provide a structural suggestive skew towards more formal organising – such as we can see in the UK in the Transparency of Lobbying, Third Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2013 which cut by 2/3 the amount third parties can spend in a general election campaign, while holding the line for registered parties.

It is at the operational level that there has been most focus. SMO choices tend to fall into institutional (e.g. political campaigning, lobbying, litigation) or confrontational, carrying out a range of repertoires of contention or protests, over a spectrum from peaceful to civil disobedience to non-violent direct action to outright violent insurrection. Most of the focus, both here and more so in the US, has been on legal mobilisation, or litigation strategy – whether pro-active, such as bringing JR – as in the recent PLP case – or reactively. Within that latter, Vanhala (2011) helpfully distinguishes strategies of active reaction or passive reaction. The former is where one seeks out by formal acts of NVDA or civil disobedience – awaiting a prosecution (or perhaps civil SLAPP: Hilson, 2016) then to co-opt the court process for a “political” defence, airing grievances more widely – for both internal and external mobilising purposes (on which see Doherty and Hayes generally). There are clear problems associated with such approaches. We might think of Galanter’s (1974) idea of repeat players v one-off hitters and the fact that activists ‘must articulate their claims so that they fall within the categories previously established by an amalgam of constitutional, statutory, administrative, common, and case law’ which in turn ‘shape the progress and outcome of movement claims in important ways’ (Andersen 2006). Another would be the linked problem of judicialisation. As Hilson (2016) puts it, “the whole point of a SLAPP suit is to convert a matter of public interest into a technical private law dispute, robbing it of political framing and providing a legal one instead”. In short, the legal process might not be sufficiently attuned to the bigger picture, to the “real” claim or concern, or the group’s goals – what we might term doctrinal disjuncture. In the Cornerhouse challenge to the SFO decision to discontinue the investigation into alleged corruption by BAe Systems in relation to the Al Yamamah defence contract with Saudi Arabia, the applicants lost (simply) because judicial review is not responsive to a merits-based challenge.

The paper neared its close by offering a more enriched and nuanced legal terrain for SMOs to traverse, located within the earlier framework – differing conceptions of law. This paper will highlight just two, of those four. The preference for law over disorder is most easily seen in the formalised system of dispute resolution, without resort to force, the idea really of legal mobilisation. In contrast we can see law as favouring if not disorder per se then disruption. We need think no more than to the disruptive – preventive – capacities of modern policing, and mass arrests (without subsequent charge) or bail conditions – all in fact sanctioned by law. Alternatively, law itself can be used as a disruptive repertoire – and I am thinking here of the mass compliance with the Westminster notification system called for by Mark Thomas. Law acts with constitutive power when it, for example, dictates the availability of places to mobilise or hold actions by conferring the status of “public” or “private” upon it, with all that entails for access. It also defines what can be done at place X, rendering the ordinary and commonplace an act of resistance: it is not unlawful to read out the names of the dead, but it is if you do so at the Cenotaph within the 1km boundary of Westminster without notification. Legal rules thus construct political deviance: while no one has been arrested for playing hopscotch, protesters have been arrested for chalking on the pavement, and charged with criminal damage (Hardman [1986] Crim LR 330).

The paper ended by re-asserting that law was a vast resource for both SMOs and those studying it but that at the moment, we were scratching the surface in only one or two areas. The problem, I argued, might be that law is not fully or usually thought of – either by its scholars (though far less so now) and others – as a social construct, and a reflexive one at that. The focus perhaps had been on what law was – and less on what it did or was capable of doing. Previously law had been seen as something in parallel – whereas I am offering law in an undergirding role.


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