International and interdisciplinary symposium : THE USE OF LAW BY SOCIAL MOVEMENTS AND CIVIL SOCIETY,  Brussels, 22-23 March 2018

Keynote speakers :

  • Michael McCann (University of Washington) Presentation – Podcast
  •  Liora Israel (EHESS) – Podcast
  • Bruno Frère (Université de Liège) – Podcast in french
  • Shalini Randeria (IWM, Vienne)

Registration (free):


Venue: Salles Schuman & Monnet (Sleep Well Hostel, 23 Rue du Damier 1000 Bruxelles)

The issue how social movements and civil society orgnanizations make use of law has long been neglected by the sociology of social movements. This is probably partly due to the fact that law as such has been largely disregarded by sociologists in general throughout the 20th century, despite the fact that it did represent a privileged object of study for some of the founders of the discipline, such as Durkheim and Weber. But under the influence of Marx and Bourdieu, many sociologists have considered law as a mere mystification serving to mask inequalities and power relations as well as to reproduce economic and social domination.

Today, things have changed significantly: research on the use of law by social movements and civil society organizations is a burgeoning area of research. They include a wide variety of case studies, relating to different countries and contexts. This scientific evolution reflects a social evolution: given the prominent place law now holds in the public and social life of many countries, numerous activist groups have come to use legal rules and institutions as tools to promote their cause. This evolution is also revealing of a change of perception of “law” itself as an object of study. Although the views expressed in the literature are very diverse, legal phenomena are taken more seriously than they used to, their internal plurality and ambivalence are acknowledged and greater attention is paid to the meaning of legal norms and procedures for ‘laymen’, that is ordinary citizens who use them.

The study of the use of law by social movements and civil society, however, remains a very fragmented field of research. Between sociologists of social movements, lawyers interested in social sciences, legal anthropologists or political anthropologists, dialogue is still hampered by the persistence of disciplinary and sub-disciplinary barriers. Their theoretical and methodological frameworks diverge; and regrettably, they often have at best a scarce knowledge of their respective work. But some conceptual innovations – the notions of ‘legal framing of causes’ or ‘structures of legal opportunities’ (and not just political ones) – highlight the interest and fruitfulness of a dialogue between disciplines on these topics of study.

Against this background, this conference has three main objectives:

  1. To highlight the diversity and richness of this evolution by bringing together, across disciplinary and geographical boundaries, new empirical and theoretical research relating to the uses of law and courts by social movements and civil society;
  1. To promote dialogue between researchers working on these issues from the viewpoint of different disciplines and using different methodologies;
  1. To map the field and critically assess these uses of the law as well as the scientific questions this evolution raises.

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