Legal Mobilization

Lisa Vanhala

in Political Science

ISBN: 9780199756223
Published online November 2011 | | DOI:
Legal Mobilization

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  • Comparative Politics
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Debates about the role and power of law, legal actors, and legal institutions in movements for social change and in politics more broadly have been waged as long as political science has been a discipline. One of the key areas of inquiry in the literature on the role of “things legal” in political systems and society concerns legal mobilization. The term embodies contested academic terrain as there is no sharply defined or universally accepted meaning. One of the earliest and most cited formulations put forth in the political science literature is that “the law is . . mobilized when a desire or want is translated into a demand as an assertion of rights” (see Zemans 1983 in Early Works). In its narrowest applications, the term refers to high-profile litigation efforts for (or, arguably, against) social change. More broadly, it has been used to describe any type of process by which individual or collective actors invoke legal norms, discourse, or symbols to influence policy or behavior. Scholarship on legal mobilization has tended to be bifurcated along two lines: individual disputing behavior and group campaigns for social reform. Political scientists generally dominate the literature on legal advocacy by group actors, whereas anthropologists and sociologists, particularly those embracing the interpretive turn in the 1980s, focus on the micropolitics of disputes among individuals. Until recently, the legal mobilization literature has been largely focused on the United States and on implicit (or explicit) assumptions of national judicial exceptionalism: the belief that the American legal and regulatory style and heightened levels of rights consciousness are unparalleled elsewhere in the world. More recent comparative work and research on transnational legal mobilization has prodded this assumption and shown that comparison is not only possible, but also useful in trying to understand which elements of American legal mobilization are generalizable to other contexts and which are not.

Article.  10858 words. 

Subjects: Politics ; Comparative Politics ; Political Institutions ; Political Methodology ; Political Theory

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