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9 Law & Hum. Behav. 3 (1985)

handle is hein.journals/lwhmbv9 and id is 1 raw text is: Law and Human Behavior, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1985

Law and the Middle Class
Evidence from a Suburban Town*
M. P. Baumgartnert
This paper draws upon ethnographic evidence from a suburb of New York City to address the rela-
tionship between social class and the use of law. In the community studied, middle-class people are
less likely than working-class people to complain to legal officials about the conduct of their personal
associates such as relatives and neighbors. It appears that the greater transiency and atomization of
middle-class people militate against their use of law by reducing the amount of negative information
antagonists have about one another and by making avoidance a more attractive means of conflict
management. Beyond this, the higher social status of middle-class people itself seems to result in a
greater reluctance to use law in personal matters: Because they are generally equal or superior to
legal officials in social standing, middle-class people are less willing than lower-status people to submit
to their judgment. In light of this, it may be necessary to qualify the prevailing view that higher-status
people have a greater propensity to use law as a means of conflict management. Where personal
matters among themselves are concerned, the opposite may be the truth.
Numerous theoretical and empirical studies have explored the relationship be-
tween social status and legal life (see, e.g., Rusche & Kirchheimer, 1968; Cham-
bliss & Seidman, 1971; Black, 1976, Chap. 2; Cain & Hunt, 1979). The consensus
of much of this work is that law is an instrument of elites, used and controlled
by them to further their own ends. Legal agencies are seen as upper-status in-
stitutions in which lower-status people are out of place-except as defendants in
cases initiated by those of higher standing. One sociologist has hypothesized that,
besides bringing many complaints against their status inferiors, higher-raniking
* An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Annual Meeting of the Law and Society
Association, Madison, Wisconsin, June 1980. For commenting upon various aspects of the work
presented here, I would like to thank Donald Black, Kai Erikson, Sally Engle Merry, Frank Romo,
Susan S. Silbey, and Stanton Wheeler.
t Department of Sociology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey.

0147-7307/85/0300-0003 $04.50/0 © 1985 Plenum Publishing Corporation

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