Teaching Law & Society Through a Transnational Lens
In her recent book, Law and Societies in Global Contexts, Eve Darian-Smith (2013) argues that mainstream law and society instruction has too often limited the scope of “society” to that within the domestic nation-state. This has not been because of narrow foresight, however. Rather, it was because the field of socio-legal studies was largely shaped by a set of political horizons within which the nation-state predominated as the central scale of social justice claims. Socio-legal scholars have therefore often taught their students about the heroic struggles for rights and equality by labor activists, women, people of color, and queers in seeking recognition or redistribution from the nation state. Yet in the face of an administration that has both amassed its power by rebuking these victories and also seems to foreclose future possibilities of protection, how might we use this as an opportunity to reconsider how we teach about law and society?
Teaching Law & Society in a transnational perspective means situating American law within a history of settler colonialism, a legacy that has persisted most visibly in the recent struggle at Standing Rock. Scholars of settler colonialism have revealed the enduring material logics of sovereignty and offer powerful critiques of the symbolic legitimacy of law. The historical continuity of this analytical perspective offers a frame through which to understand the shifting articulations of law, race, control over territory and resources, and larger transnational struggles for political-economic power.
A transnational perspective also offers our students a new political horizon from which to understand twenty first century challenges of climate change, refugee migration, and global economic inequality. These issues are the result of shifting geographies of power and new technologies of global governance that are not limited to formal legality. Indicators, standards and other forms of “soft law” have all become important sites of contestation. Hence, a transnational perspective means teaching students about the wide-ranging forms of legality that now exert control.
As we approach the Age of Trump, socio-legal studies is not only poised to help our students better understand the cotemporary political moment, but also equip them for what will surely be a difficult period for people of color, women, queer, and working class people who have long struggled for basic rights and to improve their working conditions. Understanding these struggles through a transnational context will not only reveal the underlying architectures of power through which domination is exercised, but also enlist new allies that will be important in the struggles to come.