4102 Legal Encounters: When People Meets the Law

Room: B2.04


When sociologists of law and justice are interested by the point of view of ordinary citizens, the focus is generally on the collective and individual mobilizations of the law in the administrative and judicial spheres. These works are rich in knowledge on the social uses of law, socialization and the social conditions of recourse to the law, the differentiated relations that the different social groups have with the institutions. However, in all these works, the law is conceived more as a space of adhesion, circumvention and / or resistance than as a place of conflict of interpretations, expectations, anticipation. The purpose of this session is to question the conceptions of the law that ordinary citizens have when they resort to social administrations or courts. What are the expectations that lead citizens to speak to a lawyer, a mediator, a legal intermediary? How does confrontation with professionals give rise to tensions, negotiations, arrangements? (Session organized by Quentin Ravelli).


Chair: Quentin Ravelli | CNRS

Liora Israël | Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (Paris)

Behind the doors of the law cabinet




If legal mobilization is no longer a neglected aspect of political mobilization, we nevertheless still lack insights concerning the ways in which people decide to handle law, and notably concerning the forging of legal strategies in cases related to rights issues. My focus is to lead an ethnography of the formation of legal strategies, where it is the most often located: in the lawyers’ office. This research project is built upon the confidentiality of some private lawyers who have agreed to let me observe their appointments with clients, notably concerning issues of rights in family law, discrimination law and labour law. My ambition is to elucidate the intermingling of legal and political advice in the relationship between the client and the lawyer.

Marc Hertogh | University of Groningen

"That's Your Law, Not Mine!" Legal Consciousness and Legal Alienation in Everyday Life




In contemporary sociology of law, the concept of ‘legal consciousness’ is often used to study popular perceptions of the law and the readiness of ordinary people to make use of legal ideas norms and institutions (e.g. Ewick & Silbey 1998). Most of these studies emphasize the power (or hegemony) of law (e.g. Sarat 1990; Silbey 2005) and ask: How do people experience (official) law? By contrast, this paper will analyze law both as an independent and as a dependent variable. In addition to the conventional approach, it will also ask: What do people themselves experience as ‘law’? Drawing on three detailed case studies  in the Netherlands, I will argue that people often experience a gap between ‘internal’ and ‘external’ understandings of law (Friedman 1975). When people are listening to the discourse of the law, they are no longer able to identify their voice at all. ‘What they hear instead is another voice, one that is illegitimate, foreign, incomprehensible, and distant.’ (Gargarella 2011) I will conclude that – rather than a situation of ‘legal hegemony’ – these findings signal a process of ‘legal alienation’.

Emilia Schijman | CNRS

Out of the law: the popular conceptions of justice and social norms among poor homeowners communities in rural France




Based on an ongoing ethnography in a small town in the French rustbelt, this article will study the lay conceptions of right and justice among very poor homeowners. They paradoxically never try to defend their rights to social welfare, to go to court, or to ask for legal advice. For most scholars, these situations stem from as a lack of legal knowledge and overly complex institutional procedures. However, most of these underprivileged communities did have a previous experience with the law, which often explains their will to remain apart from legal institutions. They also have their own sense of justice, social norms, and obligations, which may not fit in with the official law. All this contributes to what we may call a « moral setback » from the expected behavior in front of legal institutions. Informal social networks and services within the community and toward elected officials act as substitute for more institutionalized rights.  

Quentin Ravelli | CNRS

Illegal Rights or Legal Wrongs? When housing rights activists challenge the legitimacy of debts with their own conception of justice




In Spain, a strong social movement challenges the legitimacy of personal debts since the 2008 financial crisis. Unable to repay their home mortgages, thousands of underwater borrowers, called « afectados », started to deny the morality, then the legality, of their mortgage contracts. Helped by activist lawyers, they joined a grassroot organization called Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca, dedicated to occupy local bank branches and to fight against evictions. This paper relies on the results of a questionnaire filled bu a panel of 568 afectados in 12 Spanish cities, on interviews with lawyers and borrowers, and on visual ethnography of general assemblies, legal workshops, and banks occupations from 2011 to 2015. It will focus on the lay conception of housing and financial rights used by overindepted borrowers, which overlaps with – and often contradicts – the interpretation of financial legality put forward by the banks. Over the years, afectados have weaved their own representation of housing and financial rights, even in quite technical and intricate matters. For instance, they question the legal implications of mortgage securitization, which implies the transfer of property titles of the debt: such a transfer  should cancel, according to them, the banks’ eviction rights, and put an end to financial domination.



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