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2 Yale J.L. & Human. 343 (1990)
The Law Is All Over: Power, Resistance and the Legal Consciousness of the Welfare Poor

handle is hein.journals/yallh2 and id is 353 raw text is: .. The Law Is All Over: Power,
Resistance and the Legal Consciousness
of the Welfare Poor
Austin Sarat*
For me the law is all over. I am caught, you know; there is always
some rule that I'm supposed to follow, some rule I don't even know about
that they say. It's just different and you can't really understand. These
words were spoken by Spencer, a thirty-five-year-old man on public assis-
tance (general relief), whom I first encountered in the waiting room of a
legal services office. I introduced myself and told him that I was interested
in talking to him about law and finding out why he was using legal ser-
vices; I asked if he would be willing to talk with me and allow me to be
present when he met with his lawyer. While he seemed, at first, both
puzzled and amused that I had, as he put it, nothing more important to
do, he agreed to both of my requests.
As my research unfolded, what Spencer said in our first conversation,
.. the law is all over, served as a reference point for understanding
the meaning and significance of law in the lives of the welfare poor. His
words helped me interpret how people on welfare think about law and
use legal ideas as well as how they respond to problems with the welfare
bureaucracy. In this paper I present that interpretation and describe what
I call the legal consciousness of the welfare poor.' I suggest that the legal
* Support for this research was provided by an Amherst College Faculty Research Grant. I am
grateful for the able assistance of Chris Sayler and Jarl Alhvist. Amrita Basu, Nathaniel Berman,
Kristin Bumiller, Lawrence Douglas, Tom Dumm, Patricia Ewick, Joel Handler, Christine Harring-
ton, Sally Merry, Deborah Rhode, Stephanie Sandler, Stuart Scheingold, Carroll Seron, Susan Silbey,
Stanton Wheeler and participants in the Law and Society Seminar at Northwestern University, the
Amherst Seminar on Legal Ideology and Legal Process and the Legal Theory Workshop at Yale Law
School provided helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper.
1. Trubek, Where the Action Is: Critical Legal Studies and Empiricism, 36 Stan. L. Rev. 575,
592 (1984) defines legal consciousness as . . . all the ideas about the nature, function and operation
of law held by anyone in society at a given time. I use the term consciousness, but I could have as
easily substituted ideology. Indeed for my purposes legal consciousness and legal ideology could be
used interchangeably.
Consciousness and ideology are used instead of attitudes because speaking about attitudes toward or
about law suggests a radical individuation, a picture of persons influenced by a variety of factors,
thinking, choosing, deciding autonomously how and what to think. The language of attitudes links
popular views of law with feelings and, in so doing, diminishes the authority of the attitude holder.
See Brigham, The Public's Property: Distinguishing Law From Attitude, (1989) (unpublished

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