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Tracking the Rule of Law: How to Build Theory from Qualitative Data.

Detail Summary
Date 12 May 2020
Time 12:00 - 13:30
Location Roeterseilandcampus - building A
Room A3.01
Roeterseilandcampus - building A

Room A3.01

Nieuwe Achtergracht 166
1018 WV Amsterdam


This research explores how law (as text, organizational practices, and historic institution) develops in response to the demands and contributions of ordinary citizens, how law is made from the bottom up.  Although law has been a professional occupation and field of expert knowledge for thousands of years, my contribution has been to demonstrate how the long-lived durability of legal institutions derives directly from the multiplicity of citizen interests and narratives inscribed in the law. Rather than focus on what official texts claim to be the law, what is colloquially called the law-on-the-books, I look at what those texts (statutes, regulations, cases) set into motion, the law-in-action.  Although this dialectic animates legal scholarship, the law-on-the-books and the law-in-action are not discrete or divergent fields. They are tightly coupled and dynamically entwined in popular consciousness. Thus, as both text and action, both ideal and practice, the law is stronger, more durable, and resilient. Most people, most of the time, go along with the law, which is why we can speak of the rule of law. The long-lived endurance of legal institutions derives from the multiple narratives of law that circulate in popular culture. 

This talk shows how empirical research on legal consciousness develops in response to prior studies of disputing and litigation as well as surveys and ethnographies of law in everyday life to build a model of the resilience of law. With samples of tools for data collection and steps in data analysis, we build a model of the multiple ways that law is experienced and interpreted by ordinary citizens in their daily lives.


Professor Susan S. Silbey, Chair of the MIT Faculty (2017-2019), is the Leon and Anne Goldberg Professor of Humanities and Professor of Sociology and Anthropology in the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, and Professor of Behavioral and Policy Sciences in the Sloan School of Management.  

Silbey is interested in the governance, regulatory and audit processes in complex organizations. Her current research focuses on the creation of management systems for containing risks, including ethical lapses, as well as environment, health and safety hazards.  For the last fourteen years, she has also been following a panel of engineering students through college to employment, currently conducting a ten year post-graduation survey.

Silbey is the recipient of numerous prizes and awards including a Doctor Honoris Causa from École Normale Supériere de Cachan in France (2006), John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship (2009), Russell Sage Foundation Fellowship (2014), the Harry Kalven Jr. Prize for advancing the sociology of law (2009) and Stanton Wheeler, SHASS Levitan, and MIT Awards for mentoring, as well as several best article prizes from the American Sociological Association (2004, 2012). She is Past President of the Law & Society Association, and a fellow of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. In 2019, MIT named Silbey the James R. Killian Award Lecturer for 2019-2020 in recognition of extraordinary professional accomplishments.


For more information please contact Roland Pierik (