Rules, Laws and Conceptions of Justice in Middle School: An Exploratory Study of Children's Legal Consciousness

Holly Stevens

Advisor: James J. Willis, PhD, Department of Criminology, Law and Society

Committee Members: Jon B. Gould, Linda Merola, Earle L. Reybold

Thompson Hall, #1010
July 10, 2013, 01:30 PM to 10:30 AM


Legal consciousness research suggests that law is a pervasive force in everyday life that influences how people think about their own experiences, how they interpret future events, and how likely they are to seek out authority figures and legal institutions to remedy various problems they encounter. Research has consistently shown that minorities and other marginalized groups are less likely to seek out legal institutions to resolve problems or disputes than others, and legal consciousness research has sought to explore why this should be the case. Although not necessarily socially and economically disadvantaged, children, on account of their age, often lack the kind of access to formal legal actors or authorities to assert their rights or settle disputes that is afforded to adults. Thus, they can be viewed as legally disadvantaged and yet, to date, there have been very few explorations of how law operates in children’s everyday lives.

To address this gap, this dissertation uses semi-structured interviews and observations of 6th-graders to describe how a group of children define and use rules and laws and understand justice. I found that these children’s conceptual understanding of what is law and what is fair is quite different from how they experienced and used these concepts to resolve their own problems in everyday life. In terms of their general understanding, children described a picture of justice and law that is closely tied to how formal law, legal institutions, and legal actors are supposed to operate. These conceptions often acknowledged law’s contribution to social order and recognized the law as legitimate and trustworthy, often supposing that if certain rules or laws were unjust, legal authorities would change or improve them.

However, children’s narratives of the particular everyday problems they encountered in their lives, often at school, depicted a less idealistic conception. Most often, children described a formal system of rules and methods of problem resolution that constrained their ability to resolve a problem, limited their involvement in problem resolution, and left them dissatisfied with the process and authority figures involved. Thus, this study reveals a tension between law on the books and law in action at an early age, with children who have a relative lack of experience with formal law and legal institutions. Moreover, this study posits that this contradiction between children’s more abstract conceptual understandings of the law and their own personal experiences of quasi-legal rules, authorities, and dispute resolution processes within a school context could have potentially deleterious consequences. Specifically, it could lead children to become cynical about the law’s capacity to resolve conflict and deliver justice and make them less likely to trust legal authorities and use the law as a resource in the future.