Source: (1996) Social & Legal Studies. 5(3):383-404.

This article is prompted by what I see as a long-standing failure to provide an adequate conceptualization of popular justice in the sociology of law. Boaventura de Sousa Santos has written of community (or popular) justice, alongside legal pluralism, as part of the core debate in the sociology of law, but he notes the plasticity and increasing vagueness of these terms such that ’the core debate is increasingly a debate about what is being debated’ (de Sousa Santos, 1992: 132). He further notes the relative failure to emphasize the challenge that community justice and legal pluralism make to liberal political and legal theory, and a related tendency to take the state and law, understood as an autonomous process, for granted. My argument will be, somewhat inverting this latter point, that the failure to achieve a more precise conceptualization of popular justice is itself linked to the failure to challenge liberal theory and the idea of law as an autonomous institution. Until we interrogate a certain way of understanding law, we will not understand popular or community justice. The latter terms cover a number of differentiated and specific phenomena in practice, but what governs their possibility in the sociology of law is the conceptual relationship that is established between them and a liberal conception of law as autonomous and formal. If we challenge the concepts of liberal legality, moving in a sense from law to popular justice, we will find a more adequate way of talking about the latter. If we do not do so, our comparative understanding of different regulatory systems will remain forever imprecise. (excerpt)