In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Legal Mobilization

  • Introduction
  • Journals
  • Methodologies
  • The Role of the Judiciary
  • The Role of Cause Lawyers
  • Legal Mobilization and CounterMobilization

Political Science Legal Mobilization
Lisa Vanhala
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 March 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • 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, since 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 one’s rights” (see Zemans 1983, cited in Early Works, p. 700). 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 the early 21st century, the literature on legal mobilization 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 legal mobilization in authoritarian settings and on transnational legal mobilization have prodded this assumption and shown that comparison is not only possible, but also useful in trying to improve theory.

Seminal Texts

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” and “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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