Current LSR Issue


March 2024

Presidential Address

Relational rights: a vision for law and society scholarship


Laura Beth Nielsen


Being the President of the Law and Society Association for the past two years was an honor and privilege. In all the ways that all of us serve the Association, we embody part of the vision that I offer for our scholarship, our scholarly association and for our impact in the world.

Today I want to offer a vision of the possibilities for law and society as an intellectual movement that is true to our roots; builds on our growth and foundational core principles; and most importantly, blossoms into something new. The vision I’m offering is what I am calling relational rights.

As sociolegal scholars, we have been collectively struggling to make sense of the role of law, legal institutions and the legal profession in the United States and the world over the past decade. Internationally, the US remains embroiled in racial and ethnic conflict on multiple continents. National leaders are deploying a politics of populism and personality that flouts constitutional limits on authoritarian power, violates human rights and persecutes refugees as well as sexual and racial minorities. Enough political leaders fail to grasp the existential threat posed by climate change that real progress is stymied. And, of course, the politics of racism, hatred and exclusion are thriving. It is a time which our colleagues Tom Ginsburg and Aziz Huq characterize as the decline of constitutional democracies (Ginsburg and Huq Reference Ginsburg and Huq2018).

At the same time, scholars of law and society – inside and outside our professional association – have much to offer by way of empirical data, important theoretical insight and ultimately policy solutions. It is time for scholars of law and society to begin to lead the way to a new vision of what law, aided by empirical research, can be in and for society.

By relational rights, I mean a way to think about the law that emphasizes, values, privileges and protects important social relationships. This approach embeds discussions of “individual rights”Footnote1 in their relational context. This way, we can go beyond the opposition of “liberal communitarian” versus “conservative individual” models of rights to an analytical framework that examines the connections between rights and the relationships we seek to create, bolster and preserve for all members of society. I mean a model of rights, and more broadly law in its many forms, that recognizes the pervasiveness, importance and centrality of relationships in social life.

One of the primary lessons of the 21st century is that individuals are infinitely globally interconnected. From climate change to global pandemics, our mutual interdependence is increasingly obvious. Research in sociology, psychology, economics and various fields of medicine all find the value of being in healthy relationships with others. And yet, we increasingly are not in such relationships. The fact that we are increasingly socially isolated has led the U.S. Surgeon General to declare loneliness an epidemic in the United States (Murthy Reference Murthy2023). Research across these fields demonstrates convincingly that healthy social relationships help us live longer (Holt-Lunstad et al. Reference Holt-Lunstad, Smith, Baker, Harris and Stephenson2015) by decreasing the risk of cardiovascular disease (Cene et al. Reference Cené, Beckie, Sims, Suglia, Aggarwal, Moise, Jiménez, Gaye and McCullough2022; Holt-Lunstad et al. Reference Holt-Lunstad, Smith, Baker, Harris and Stephenson2015), diabetes (Kelly and Berg Reference Kelly and Berg2021; Norberg et al. Reference Norberg, Stenlund, Lindahl, Andersson, Eriksson and Weinehall2007; Wiebe et al. Reference Wiebe, Helgeson and Berg2016), suicidal ideation (Du et al. Reference Du, Shi, Qian, Jin, Yang, Hai-Rong, Liu, Xue-Lei and Chen2021; Van Orden et al. Reference Van Orden, Witte, Cukrowicz, Braithwaite, Selby and Joiner2010; Wang et al. Reference Wang, Mann, Lloyd-Evans, Ruimin and Johnson2018) and cognitive decline (Froemke and Young Reference Froemke and Young2021; Lazzari and Rabottini Reference Lazzari and Rabottini2022; Penninkilampi et al. Reference Penninkilampi, Casey, Fiatarone Singh and Brodaty2018).

In addition to improving individual health, positive social relationships also are associated with reduced crime rates (Sampson et al. Reference Sampson, Raudenbush and Earls1997), lower rates of shootings and other kinds of violence (Kirk and Papachristos Reference Kirk and Papachristos2011; Sampson et al. Reference Sampson, Morenoff and Gannon-Rowley2002; Reference Sampson, Raudenbush and Earls1997).

Law has a unique ability to foster relationships in which these positive individual and social outcomes can be achieved. Law, broadly conceived, more than any other institution of government, is situated to resolve disputes in ways that foster relationships. And if law has a role to play, what do we, as empirical sociolegal scholars, have to offer for this enterprise? In other words, “where is law in supporting such relationships and what is the role of scholars like us in that?”

I propose a relational rights model to help us answer this important question. A relational rights framework is based on the basic humanity of all people, positive approaches and public appeal.

A relational rights framework should be positive, meaning it should be a framework that uses the critique we often engage in to build a bold view of the possibilities for law. Without abandoning critique or critical empiricism, a relational rights approach asks what can we build to achieve these possibilities for society? Such an approach should also be public, meaning that we should endeavor to engage with broader audiences outside the academy. And finally, a relational rights approach would emphasize the relationships we value and the rights claims that support those relationships.

As a scholar of law and inequality, I am especially concerned with how relationships and rights reflect, reinforce and sometimes deconstruct dynamics of power and hierarchies based on unearned privilege.


My rights, their rights, our rights: a response to Laura Beth Nielsen on relational rights, gun politics and the struggle over community


Jennifer Carlson

Which rights, and for whom? What relational rights mean in an era of immigrant exclusion


Asad L. Asad

Relating to, through, and beyond rights …


Michael McCann

Sexual consent and relational rights: a call for relational repair


Kamaria B. Porter

Toward a politic of welcome: a response to Laura Beth Nielsen’s presidential address


Reuben Jonathan Miller

Displacements: objects and relationality


Emilie Cloatre, Dave Cowan


“The state is something that disappoints”: legal consciousness amid institutional dissatisfaction


Mayra Feddersen, Javier Wilenmann, Julia Cavieres, Maite Gambardella


Through the lens of legal consciousness, this paper analyzes institutional dissatisfaction within the backdrop of profound skepticism directed at formal institutions, particularly within the context of post-October 2019 Chilean society. It aims at inquiring into the relationship between the expression of deep state antipathy and the stance that individuals manifest regarding legality. The paper reports on the findings derived from 12 focus groups, categorized by age, gender and location. We find that despite prevalent negative sentiments harbored by individuals toward these establishments, interviewees continue to use the language of law, expressing their dissatisfaction as frustrated formal entitlements or a lack of enforcement of the law regarding corrupt elites. We conclude that the existence of a gap between normative expectations and the acute rejection of the fulfillment of those expectations by institutional actors points to a structure of opportunities conducive to the emergence of more authoritative forms of state power.

Legal entrepreneurship and the evolution of multidimensional advocacy in social movements: the case of marriage equality


Christine M. Bailey, Paul M. Collins, Jr., Jesse H. Rhodes, Douglas Rice


The emergence and dissemination of new legal ideas can play an important role in sparking change in the way activists in marginalized communities understand their rights and pursue their objectives. How and why do the legal beliefs of such communities evolve? We argue that the vigorous advocacy of new legal ideas by entrepreneurs and the harnessing of specialized media to help disseminate those ideas are important mechanisms in this evolution. We use the rise of marriage equality as a central legal priority in the mainstream American LGBTQ+ rights movement as a case study to illustrate this phenomenon. Using a mixed-methods analysis of Evan Wolfson’s legal advocacy and an examination of The Advocate, we investigate how Wolfson developed and disseminated legal ideas about same-sex marriage. We show how this advocacy eventually dominated discussion of the issue among elite LGBTQ+ legal actors and the nation’s largest LGBTQ+ publication. However, Wolfson’s advocacy tended to emphasize LGBTQ+ integration into “mainstream” American culture and prioritized the interests and values of relatively privileged subgroups within the LGBTQ+ community. Our research informs our understanding of the interplay between legal advocacy and media reporting in the development of LGBTQ+ rights claims and the strategies adopted to achieve them.

Safe at home? Examining the extension of criminal penalties for marital rape in cross-national context, 1979–2013


Andrew P. Davis, Morgan Johnstonbaugh


While sociologists have focused on the national adoption of public-sphere women’s rights such as the right to vote in elections or participate fully in economic matters, less work has examined the diffusion of private-sphere women’s rights, rights of women in the home. We address this gap by examining the cross-national adoption of laws that criminalize marital rape. Building on prior research that finds that women’s rights organizations and women’s rights focused treaties, we explore the cross-national determinants of the criminalization of marital rape. Using an event history analysis covering 131 countries from 1979 to 2013, we find support for the global institutionalist framework that contends that socialization into the global system and direct advocacy efforts of global organizations contribute to faster rates of criminalization of marital rape. Further, we suggest that these global institutionalist processes become amplified when they are focused by events that set the agenda for international organizations. Implications for world-society scholarship on the global adoption of women’s rights are further discussed.

Book Reviews

Undue process: Persecution and punishment in autocratic countries. By Fiona Feiang Shen-Bayh. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2022.


Malcolm M. Feeley

The Briny South: Displacement and sentiment in the Indian Ocean World. By Nienke Boer. Durham: Duke University Press, 2023. Paperback, 978-1-4780-1955-8


Kalyani Ramnath

The slow violence of immigration court: Procedural justice on trial. By Maya Pagni Barak. New York: New York University Press, 2023. 240 pp. $30.00 paperback.


Hillary Mellinger

Asylum and extraction in the Republic of Nauru. By Julia Caroline Morris. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2023. 308 pp.


Amy Nethery


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