Skip to main content

Imagined Law: "We followed the law word by word!"

Prof. Michael Birnhack, Tel Aviv University, Faculty of Law 
Dr. Lotem Perry-Hazan University of Haifa, Faculty of Education

Our teachers in school, back in the 1970s and 1980s used to tell us that they had eyes in their backs, and that they could see us when they were writing on the blackboard.  That was the old school way of trying to achieve discipline, by creating a sense of supervision.  Discipline was achieved also through the schools’ architecture, typically with the principal’s office overlooking the schoolyard.  And there was education too.  Our teachers taught us right from wrong.  Increasingly, the new school strives to achieve discipline and order by using technological means.  Today, in many schools in western democracies, we find a host of technologies, typically Closed Circuit TV (CCTV) systems, and in American schools, one can find metal detectors, biometric identification and other technologies.  Schools introduce these technologies in order to achieve security, safety, efficiency and a host of other fine goals.  But they also produce supervision and surveillance.  We are intrigued by the introduction of such surveillance technologies into the educational setting.  The premise of our study is that a school that installed a surveillance technology is not just the same school with another technical element.  It is a different school.  The technology is not technical; it is normative and has an effect.

Our project explores the introduction of surveillance technologies into schools.  Our case study is the introduction of CCTV systems in Israeli schools.  This is the first surveillance technology that is installed in Israeli schools, and rapidly so.  We began with interviewing school principals, city officials, and have since continued with interviewing teachers, primary school children and high school students.  We approached the principals with a set of questions borrowed from administrative law: we wanted to know who initiated the decision, who made it, did the decision makers consult others, which considerations did they take into account, and which did they ignore. 

One of the first principals we interviewed was highly confident.  She firmly tapped the table and replied: “I followed the law, word by word”.  She referred to a binding regulation of the Ministry of Education.  We let her continue for a while, but then had to interrupt.  There is no such law, we told her.  It was an awkward moment.  The principal called her secretary, and asked to see the folder on CCTV.  The secretary indeed brought such a folder.  It had “CCTV” in capital letters on its cover. The principal opened it.  It was empty.
Other principals then offered similar answers.  Of course, we double-checked ourselves: perhaps there was a regulation that we missed.  Perhaps an unofficial draft circulated or leaked.  Nothing.  We framed the findings within Lauren Edelman’s theory of the endogeneity of the law, and added our findings: imagined law.  Some principals imagined a law, and acted upon it.  It was not merely a mistake about the content of an existing law.  They self-convinced themselves that there was a binding legal rule, and they acted upon it.  The imagined laws, by the way, differed from one principal to another.  The contents of the imagined law seems to be their own beliefs and convictions, projected onto this non-existing rule. 
We find this autosuggestion fascinating: can the law be made out of thin air?  How powerful is such an imagined law?  Are there other such laws in our lives, beyond the school environment?  The school setting provided us with a real case study of an imagined law.  A teaching moment for all lawmakers.

Popular posts from this blog

How to Tell When to Send Your Paper into a Journal

By Susan Sterett and Paul Collins

A group of faculty and graduate students in the Five College Seminar in Legal Studies in Western Massachusetts talked on a beautiful Friday afternoon about submitting a manuscript to a journal, something that feels so scary to some people they won’t do it. Other people send things in readily, and have tricks to manage any difficulties. If you don’t send it in, you won’t get it in the conversations you want to be part of. The academic conversation will be the worse for it. Still, how do you know? Especially because we are often the harshest judges of our work. Here are some alternatives the group came up with:
When an advisor, or colleague, or coauthor says it’s time;When you have gathered feedback on your work at a conference or working group and revised;When you’ve checked that it fits with the structure and format of articles in the journal you want to send it to, and it engages issues the journal engages;When you can’t stand to look at it any…

Sociolegal Studies, Disaster, Climate Change

By Susan Sterett
 The devastation in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, Houston and Florida, the hurricanes, the fires in California, the fires in British Columbia, are not visible enough in sociolegal scholarship, to our loss. Students and others find the overlap of humanitarian assistance, weather events, and climate change compelling; they also lose. Anthropologists who work internationally have pointed out the difficult governance in humanitarian assistance outside the United States: what is the life that is saved? What are the tools essential to saving lives? What kind of governing does lifesaving justify? How do the NGOs who contract governing in disaster, including in disastrous states, bring law? Humanitarian assistance is where many young people want to be, and it looks like where the help is. It’s often militarized, and governs in exception. Often left unacknowledged is the role of law. Yet people and organizations bring law in catastrophe and humanitarian gove…

A Brief Guide to Reading, Writing, and Giving Feedback in Socio-Legal Studies

By: Mark Fathi Massoud This piece first appeared in the Centre for Law and Society. LSR is grateful for the opportunity to reprint this post.


Part of researching and writing well in the field of socio-legal studies is reading well. Reading well involves annotating everything that you read. Each article, book or book section that you read must be “imPECCable” –

P is for Purpose: Ask yourself, what is the author’s purpose in writing this piece? Who is the audience? This objective is usually stated almost immediately in a piece of writing, usually in a preface or abstract or introduction.

E is for Evidence: What evidence does the author marshal in support of his/her purpose?

C is for Conclusion: What does the author conclude in light of the evidence gathered?

C is for Critique: Ask yourself — given the author’s stated purpose, did the author achieve what the author set out to achieve? Assess the strengths and weaknesses of the author’s work. In what ways did the reading app…