Studies of legal consciousness attempt to address questions about the place and meaning of law in the lives of ordinary citizens. Until recently, two competing theoretical perspectives have dominated the scholarship on legal consciousness. One school of thought treats consciousness as the ideas and attitudes of individuals; from this perspective the meaning that people give to law and the role that it plays in their lives is representative of the ways that individuals create or shape the world around them. A second school of thought holds that legal consciousness is a by- product of the social institutions and structures that define peoples lives. From this perspective, legal consciousness is the product rather than the source of the world people find themselves living in. In recent years, a growing body of empirical studies reject both the individual and structural conceptualizations of legal consciousness. Instead, this school of thought views legal consciousness as cultural practice that mediates between the individual and the social structure. Consciousness evolves within a framework of expectations about what is the normal and moral way to act, what kinds of wrongs warrant action, and what kinds of remedies are acceptable and appropriate as well as probable and effective. With this view, legal consciousness varies and changes with local situations, norms and customary ways of doing things. Silbey will advance this cultural perspective theoretically, introducing a typology of legal consciousness, and exploring whether and how people express their ideas about law in ways that are consonant with one or more of these typifications. Also, the project introduces a unique data set. She uses indepth, face to face, interviews with 300 persons in four New Jersey counties. The questions enable her to collect rich stories of troubles and minor disruptions, as well as formal experiences with legal agents. By combining this methodology with probability sampling, she will be able to trace greater variation in legal consciousness among American citizens than has been achieved to date, including variations among African-American and Hispanic, as well as white populations. Finally, she introduces a unique, two stage plan of analysis. Specifically, one phase focuses on the analysis of discrete words while the second examines the thematic content of the interview narratives. Overall, the study will make substantial contributions to the growing body of work on legal consciousness by extending it demographically, methodologically, and theoretically.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Susan O. White
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Clark University
United States
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