Academic journal article Law & Society Review

Inquiry and Activism in Law and Society

Academic journal article Law & Society Review

Inquiry and Activism in Law and Society

Article excerpt

I. Hearing the Call of Activism

Two events in the past twelve months have made me think about the law and society field and activism-two events and many years of telling myself that our field is about more than research.

The first event was Bette Sikes's response to the recognition she received from Austin Sarat, at last year's annual meeting, for her long years of service as production manager of the Law & Society Review. Bette, as always, cut to the heart of the matter with her parting advice, "Y'all should learn to write."

As I learned to appreciate when I was editor of the Review, there is a larger lesson in Bette's advice-the importance of communicating so that we can be heard and have an effect. But the problem of communicating and affecting does not stop when we have our prose in order. Behind that concern is the still larger question about who we want our work to influence and how. The inception of the law and society field in North America, and in many other societies, was motivated by a belief in the simple proposition that law should stand for equality and for justice. Law and society researchers provided mounting evidence that law did not meet such high ideals. Our research appeared to have some significance in the fight for equality and justice. We agreed with Lawrence Friedman's observation that "law is too important to be left to the lawyers."

A second event occurred in August 1999 that deeply moved me and created a sharper focus. Neelan Tiruchelvam, Sri Lankan human rights scholar and our longstanding law and society colleague, was assassinated for his peaceful activism in resolving the violent conflict in Sri Lanka between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority. Neelan will be remembered by those who met him as one of the kindest and gentlest of persons. His legacy as an activist was large. He was an important figure in the Sri Lankan Parliament and a founder of two of Sri Lanka's best-- known social science research institutions, the International Centre for Ethnic Studies and the Law and Society Trust. As an internationally known human rights scholar and activist his voice carried great weight. Since his death I have been considering what I should learn from the life of this man that I admired.

At the top of the list might be Neelan's hopes for law. Neelan wrote about the promise of the judiciary in deeply divided plural societies, noting that most of the violent conflicts since World War II have involved divisions of racial and ethnic identity. His hopes also included solutions for the quiet violence of starvation and exclusion from opportunity for a quality life. He was drawn by the moral power of law to address these problems.

As our field goes global, I see a reawakening of the earlier interest in justice and equality, and in power, class, race, ethnicity, and religion. In North America, the end to the intellectual turbulence created by the cold war may have made it easier to perceive injustice. We see more clearly, perhaps, the disparity between extremes of poverty and power on one hand and optimistic claims for free markets and world governance on the other. A quarter of the world population lives on less than $1 per day. Poverty is not just about money. Economist Amartya Sen has said, "[P]overty must be seen as the deprivation of basic capabilities rather than merely as low incomes" (1999:87). Capabilities, in turn, according to Sen, are "substantive freedoms the individual has reason to value" (ibid). Thus, world poverty cannot be understood without considering substantive freedoms, governance-- and law.

As the vision of world problems becomes clearer, so also does our perception of race, gender, and poverty in all societies, including North America. Amartya Sen, once again, brought to the attention of the world that African-American men in urban America have a shorter life expectancy than men in Bangladesh or the poorest state in India. …

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