Course Meeting Times

Seminars: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session


MIT students must obtain the permission of the instructor. (OCW users do not need permission to use the materials.)

Course Description

2011 has been a year of protests, from the Arab spring to Occupy Wall Street. Indeed, the past three decades have witnessed a proliferation of social movements, organized around a range of interests, identities and issues, within several countries as well as across state boundaries, globally. This intensification of mass action has thrown received paradigms of public policy into crisis, partly because these paradigms were mostly intended to operate in controlled or elite-driven policy environments. Many of these social movements have increasingly, if not always consistently, resorted to law and legal institutions, in their attempt to influence public policy at the local, national and global levels, while many other movements have confronted the State and law and tried to force change outside or against law. Why do some movements resort to the law, and what impact does it have on movements' goals, strategies and effectiveness? Why do some movements avoid law or even confront them and even when they do so, are they ever free of the shadow of law? Why do some movements resort to the law more and why do some succeed using the law while others don't?

This course will explore the relationship between law, social movements and public policy by asking several questions including: how is public policy generally believed to be made? What is the role of law and legal institutions such as courts and government agencies in that process? Does the formal existence of legal rights matter? How is public policy made and what is the role of social movements in that process? Is social change generated and sustained by law primarily or by social movements? How important is the role of social movements for the generation and implementation of public policy? By asking these and other questions, this course attempts to provide a contextual perspective on how laws and legal institutions can be more effectively used by social movements to influence public policy and thereby address issues of social justice, and how law and legal institutions need to be reworked sometimes to achieve movements' goals.

After an introduction to theoretical frameworks on social movements, law and public policy, the first half of the course will be devoted to an in-depth examination of the experience of law and legal institutions in two large democracies with active judiciaries and a history of social movement culture: the US and India. We will look at how social movements organized around issues such as the labor, environment, human rights, gender and poverty/welfare/social justice tried to influence public policy through the law. Do these movements function mostly in a domestic legal terrain? The second half of the course will examine emerging global public policy in several areas including human rights, trade, development and environment and the increasing contestation between social movements and global economic institutions such as the World Trade Organization, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and the role of law in this process. Do these movements engage mostly with international law?

The purpose of this course is to examine the 'ground' conditions under which law and legal institutions contribute to social change through their impact on public policy. Through this approach, the course aims to provide students a critical understanding of the range of legal tools and methods used in a variety of public policy settings, and the circumstances under which they sometimes fail or succeed.

Course Requirements and Grading

This course will be structured around lectures/presentations by the instructor and a few visitors. There will be a field-based class project, focusing on Occupy Wall Street and its relationship to law and legal institutions. This course requires active student participation in discussions and therefore the students are expected to read all the assigned readings carefully and prepare to be called upon in class. Late submissions will not be graded.

Attendance is required in all classes and absences without prior notification to the instructor will affect grading since class participation is a critical component of grading. 3 such absences without prior notification will result in an automatic 'fail' grade.


2 short papers 50%
Field based class project 30%
Class participation 20%

Graduate Students

Graduate students who take this course need to write a final paper on a research topic that they identify in consultation with the instructor. This topic should relate to a social movement and its relationship to law and legal institutions in a country (India and US can be chosen but need to focus on a movement not covered in class), or at the global level, and must be based on independent research. Late submissions will result in a fail grade.

Final paper 50%
Field based class project 30%
Class participation 20%

Required Books

Buy at Amazon Rosenberg, Gerald. The Hollow Hope: Can Courts Bring About Social Change? University of Chicago Press, 2008. ISBN: 9780226726717.

Buy at Amazon O'Brien, Robert, Anne Marie Goetz, et al. Contesting Global Governance: Multilateral Economic Institutions and Global Social Movements. Cambridge University Press, 2000. ISBN: 9780521774406. [Preview with Google Books]