Central European University

2001 International Meeting in Budapest, Hungary (w/ RCSL)

July 4-7


Law in Action

The field of sociolegal studies has long been organized around the idea that “law on the books” is different from “law in action.” Usually this means that law as it is experienced in the lives of people is different from law as an abstract field of knowledge. Also, law as it is interpreted and applied often bears little resemblance to the formal statute or written legal code. We therefore take “law in action” as our theme this year because it is one of the enduring and centrally important ideas of our field.

The gap between law in action and law on the books is present everywhere, and is clearly evident in the area we are highlighting with this year’s meeting location—in Central and Eastern Europe and states of the former Soviet Union. “Transition” has brought with it very substantial legal changes; social practices have struggled to keep up with (and sometimes to keep out of the way of) law. By highlighting law in action, we hope to focus on the way in which legal changes have (or have not) made a difference in the lives of people who are going through political changes and their accompanying legal transformations. “Law in action” also brings to mind one of the great Central European contributions to the field of sociolegal studies, Eugen Ehrlich’s work on “living law.”

Our theme has other meanings too.

“Law in action” calls attention to the responsibility of sociolegal scholars in the public realm. What do we, as sociolegal scholars, have to say about the great issues of our time? From participating in struggles for human rights to examining the legal infrastructure of globalization, from encouraging progressive law reform to promoting legal guarantees of equal citizenship, sociolegal scholars bring something special to discussion in the public sphere—a grounding of legal ideas and rights claims in social and cultural contexts. Considering law in action can be a description of what sociolegal scholars do.

“Law in action” also highlights the way in which law structures many different settings from the most intimate personal interactions to intermediate-level organizational and regulatory regimes to the largest processes of globalization. At each level, we see how law plays a central role in the articulation of contradictory tendencies:  both new nationalisms and new transnational organizations, personal identity and universalistic practices, personal experience and grand histories are articulated through law. As both the local and the global are simultaneously and increasingly intensified in modern experience, law is implicated in each.

“Law in action,” then, is meant to encourage reflection on the gaps between legal rules and law-related practices, to consider our role as public intellectuals, and to allow us to see the way in which law actively shapes social relations at many levels.


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