What does socio-legal studies contribute to the understanding of rights?

A farm in the countryside

Of Mines, Mining, and Imagining: Rights without Society?

Lydia Morgan, University of Birmingham.                
ORCID ID icon 0000-0002-2081-7080

What does socio-legal studies add to the study of civil liberties and human rights? There are many ways to explore civil liberties and human rights and sometimes these different aspects are in competition with one another. Some legal studies look to how to successfully argue for specific rights in court to have them enforced, while others look at how new legislation, regulation, or policy might damage existing rights. Others still ask questions about how rights are understood through other, connected but distinct perspectives.

In addition to the assessment of technical rules and procedures one of the other ways to ask questions about law is called socio-legal studies. But its simple title hides a deeply varied and creative range of ways to study law in society, or law in context as it is sometimes referred. It provides a not just a toolbox, but a whole workshop of ways to think about law, its relationship to, shaping by and shaping of society. For example, gender, censorship, and power have been analysed but using the varied tools of socio-legal studies. As well as looking only at the text of the law or the pronouncements of judges, socio-legal studies utilises interviews and narratives to understand how law is experienced.

As part of celebration of Phil Thomas’s work to develop and champion socio-legal studies in the UK, this article imagines what studies of rights would be without socio-legal studies. It uses material from the back catalogue of the Journal of Law and Society, edited since its inception by Thomas, a staunch Welshman, to look at how studying law through the social is much like the different ways in which mining can be seen: rights in their place (at, in and of the mine), the discourse of rights (the mine system), individual and local experiences of rights (colliers at the coalface) and the law in context (the mine in the valley).

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