Popular Legal Studies

“A basic premise of popular legal studies holds that the study, practice, and critique of law must now take into account new developments in popular culture and communication technology and the socio-economic conditions under which popular legal representations are produced. Building on critical insights into the construction of legal consciousness in society, the study of law in popular culture offers a multidisciplinary approach to the reciprocal process of institutional and individual legal meaning making.

In pursuit of this goal, the study of law in popular culture brings together a theory, a practice, a field, a pedagogy, and an ethos. The theory builds upon constructivist insights which tell us that the particular form of expression, the discourse, the metaphor, the image that is used is essential to the kind of truth that may be expressed. It uses a multidisciplinary approach (including cognitive and cultural psychology, anthropology, linguistics, and rhetoric; and media, film, and communication studies) to understand how legal meanings are made and transmitted in society. The practice engages micro-analytic studies in which specific legal behavior is examined and assessed using a variety of analytical tools, including empirical as well as broader interpretive studies. The field ranges from formal sites and practices of legal meaning making (the courtroom, the legislature, the governmental agency) to everyday sites and practices (where people give voice to legal meanings in social discourse and absorb popular legal meanings from a variety of cultural artifacts including images on the screen). The pedagogy is eclectic, relying on diverse perspectives to build up, not necessarily in linear fashion, a mosaic of insights that may be brought to bear upon new and concrete fields of legal action. In this respect, the pedagogy of popular legal studies resembles the practice of the classical rhetor who would draw upon accumulated topics (i.e., discrete areas of substantive knowledge and aesthetic forms) as the particular situation required. Finally, the ethos that emerges from this multidisciplinary, constructivist approach takes shape in response to two central queries: who is responsible for assigning meaning to public symbols, and how is that responsibility being carried out? […]

In sum, popular legal studies reflects a broader scholarly move to elucidate how meanings are made and conveyed in society. It accounts for the communicative and persuasive elements of legal practice as well as the quotidian practices of popular legal meaning making by members of the public at large. Changes in dominant storytelling practices portend changes of mind and culture. Today, our stories are increasingly visual. Understanding the complex and ubiquitous process of legal meaning making requires that legal scholars come to grips with these developments. The study of law in popular culture embraces a multidisciplinary analysis of the manifold ways in which the interpenetration of law and popular culture constitutes legal consciousness. We may see this, for example, where legal persuasion and commercial entertainment values merge, leaving heightened sensory gratification as the benchmark for popular judgment and belief. Whether this standard or some other will ultimately prevail remains to be seen. In the meantime, the study of law in popular culture may help us to monitor and assess who gets to assign meaning to the public symbols of law, and with what legal and political effect. Taking responsibility for the production and effects of legal consciousness is one (perhaps the most crucial) way in which we take responsibility for the kind of society in which we live.

[excerpt from Richard K. Sherwin, “Law in Popular Culture,” in Blackwell Companion to Law and Society (Blackwell Companions to Sociology: Oxford University Press, 2004) by Austin Sarat (editor) {detailed contents}

See also Richard K. Sherwin, “The Lawyer as Celebrity” (1991)

R. K. Sherwin, Popular Culture and Law (Ashgate 2006)

See also “Trial By Fury” (The Scott Peterson trial transformed legal pundit Nancy Grace into a full-fledged media star. Unfortunately, the TV shout-fests she helped pioneer have damaged defendants’ presumption of innocence.) [The New Republic]