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.
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.
LAST MODIFIED: 11/29/2011
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
How to Subscribe
Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions and individuals. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.
Purchase an Ebook Version of This Article
Ebooks of the Oxford Bibliographies Online subject articles are available in North America via a number of retailers including Amazon, vitalsource, and more. Simply search on their sites for Oxford Bibliographies Online Research Guides and your desired subject article.
If you would like to purchase an eBook article and live outside North America please email email@example.com to express your interest.
- Advanced Democracies, Electoral System Reform in
- Advanced Democracies, Public Opinion and Public Policy in
- Advertising and Election Campaigns in the United States
- Africa, Comparative Politics of
- Arendt, Hannah
- Australia and New Zealand, Comparative Politics of
- Bicameralism in Stable Democracies
- Brazilian Political Development
- Channels of Electoral Representation in Advanced Industria...
- China's One-Child Policy
- China-Taiwan Relations
- Civil War in Sub-Saharan Africa
- Cosmopolitan Political Thought
- Crisis of European Integration in Historical Perspective, ...
- Democracy and Authoritarianism in Sub-Saharan Africa
- Democracy and Dictatorship in Central Asia
- Democratic Citizenship
- Democratic Peace Theory
- Democratization in Central America
- Development of Survey Research
- East Africa, Politics of
- Eurasia, Comparative Politics of
- European Social Democracy
- European Union, Politics of the
- Failed and Weak States in Theory and Practice
- Federalism in the United States
- Filibuster, The
- Global Inequality
- Governance in Africa
- Immigrant Incorporation in Canada
- Impact of Campaign Contributions on Congressional Behavior...
- Indigenous Rights and Governance in Canada, Australia, and...
- Interest Groups in American Politics
- International Conflict Management
- International Political Economy of Illegal Drugs
- Iran, Political Development of
- Israeli Politics
- Judicial Supremacy and National Judicial Review
- Latin America, Democratic Transitions in
- Latin America, Environmental Policy and Politics in
- Latin America, Guerrilla Insurgencies in
- Latin America, Social Movements in
- Legal Mobilization
- Local Governments in the United States
- Mechanisms of Representation
- Media Effects in Politics
- NATO, Politics of
- North America, Comparative Politics of
- Oil, Politics of
- Partisan Polarization in the US Electorate
- Party Networks
- Political Thought of the American Founders, The
- Politics and Policy in Contemporary Argentina
- Politics of Higher Education in the U.S.
- Politics of Natural Disasters, The
- Post-Communist Democratization
- Preferential Trade Agreements, Politics of
- Public Opinion in Advanced Industrial Democracies
- Public Opinion in New Democracies and Developing Nations
- Regime Transitions and Variation in Post-Communist Europe
- Regional Security
- State Building in Sub-Saharan Africa
- Supreme Court of the United States, The
- Taiwan, Politics of
- Tea Party, The
- Transitional Justice
- US Military Bases Abroad
- Welfare State Development
- West Africa, Politics of
- Worker Politics in China