In This Article Legal Mobilization

  • Introduction
  • Contemporary Works
  • Journals
  • Methodologies
  • The Role of the Judiciary
  • The Role of Cause Lawyers
  • Legal Mobilization and Counter-Mobilization
  • Comparative Research
  • Transnational Legal Mobilization

Political Science Legal Mobilization
Lisa Vanhala
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 September 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0031


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.

General Overviews

Although many scholars now bridge this divide, literature on legal mobilization can be categorized into two types: research that tends to focus on collective legal struggle and its outcomes and scholarship that addresses individual disputing behavior. Another distinction is between “top-down” versus “bottom-up” studies. Judicial impact studies generally explore how justices reach decisions and the influence judicial decisions have on politics and social change. “Bottom-up” studies are now equally common and seek to understand why individual and group actors might turn to the courts or other legal institutions in pursuit of their goals, or what happens when they do. More recently, the impact on individuals, social movements, and legal actors of the act of mobilizing the law has become a focus of attention.

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