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Working Law

Courts, Corporations, and Symbolic Civil Rights

Working Law

Courts, Corporations, and Symbolic Civil Rights

Since the passage of the Civil Rights Act, virtually all companies have antidiscrimination policies in place. Although these policies represent some progress, women and minorities remain underrepresented within the workplace as a whole and even more so when you look at high-level positions. They also tend to be less well paid. How is it that discrimination remains so prevalent in the American workplace despite the widespread adoption of policies designed to prevent it?

One reason for the limited success of antidiscrimination policies, argues Lauren B. Edelman, is that the law regulating companies is broad and ambiguous, and managers therefore play a critical role in shaping what it means in daily practice. Often, what results are policies and procedures that are largely symbolic and fail to dispel long-standing patterns of discrimination. Even more troubling, these meanings of the law that evolve within companies tend to eventually make their way back into the legal domain, inconspicuously influencing lawyers for both plaintiffs and defendants and even judges. When courts look to the presence of antidiscrimination policies and personnel manuals to infer fair practices and to the presence of diversity training programs without examining whether these policies are effective in combating discrimination and achieving racial and gender diversity, they wind up condoning practices that deviate considerably from the legal ideals.

312 pages | 26 figures, 4 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2016

Chicago Series in Law and Society

Law and Legal Studies: Law and Society

Political Science: Race and Politics

Sociology: Formal and Complex Organizations


“A brilliant, theoretically rich, and empirically grounded account of how law shapes and is shaped by the organizational context in which it is applied, Working Law challenges some of our most deeply held assumptions about the causes of and solutions to race and gender inequality in the contemporary workplace.”

Devon Carbado, University of California, Los Angeles, author of Acting White? Rethinking Race in “Post-Racial” America

Working Law brings together and extends substantially thirty years of meticulous research to offer a powerful explanation for how and why equality-promoting civil rights legislation may accomplish little. A comprehensive, definitive statement of the mechanisms of ‘legal endogeneity’ theory, it is foundational—a must read and clarion call to scholars, policymakers, judges, and civil rights advocates.”

Robin S. Stryker, University of Arizona

“With this lone comprehensive and empirically supported critique of our national celebration of civil rights, Edelman argues persuasively that we live not in a post–civil rights society—as many have claimed—but a ‘symbolic civil rights society,’ an age committed to the trappings of civil rights but little more. Working Law is a distinct, original, and important interpretation of the long-term trajectory of civil rights policy. While most view civil rights policy as a mix of some meaningful implementation and much resistance to it, Edelman makes the striking case that much of the path of change is driven by one force: the interests of major organizational employers and, specifically, the strategies of their managers to inoculate employment practices from challenge. It’s hard to overstate the significance of this work.”

Charles R. Epp, author of Pulled Over: How Police Stops Define Race and Citizenship

“Edelman’s Working Law is simply superb. It breaks through the barriers that too often separate the work of the academy from the lived experience of lawyers and judges. On a personal note, it provides a thoughtful answer to the phenomenon I observed when I was on the bench—why employment law was singularly ineffective in addressing modern discrimination, why courts were satisfied with token compliance with organizational antidiscrimination programs and policies, ignoring the real face of discrimination. It is not often that a scholarly book creates an ‘aha’ moment for a legal practitioner, especially a former judge. This is surely one of them. It should be part of every judge’s training, and on every employment law professor’s reading list.”

Nancy Gertner, former United States District Judge for the District of Massachusetts

"Why, after more than half a century since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, do we continue to observe racial and gender discrimination in the workplace? This is the central question in Edelman's Working Law: Courts, Corporations, and Symbolic Civil Rights . . . [The book] makes for a solid addition to just about everyone's bookshelf."

Law and Politics Book Review

"Working Lawmakes a landmark contribution to understanding the relationship between law and organizations. It also raises vitally important questions for future research. [...] More generally, Working Law strongly suggests that a fundamental shift in the approach of employment discrimination law toward more systemic factors and less focus on the agency of individual bad actors would be helpful. And this, many employment discrimination scholars would argue, is long overdue."

Catherine R. Albiston | Law & Social Inquiry

"Lauren Edelman’s Working Law is remarkably relevant to the study of financial regulation. In particular, three factors that Edelman identifies as specifically contributing to legal endogeneity and symbolic compliance—ambiguous law, a lack of clear outcome measures, and the presence of legal intermediaries—are especially salient in the context of financial regulation."

Kimberly D. Krawiec | Law & Social Inquiry

"Lauren B. Edelman’s Working Law: Courts, Corporations, and Symbolic Civil Rights(2016) offers an empirically supported theory of legal endogeneity, explaining how managerialized ideas of compliance with employment discrimination legislation diffuse in organizational fields and shape judicial doctrine. Managerialization and legal endogeneity explain how and why equality-promoting civil rights legislation may do little to reduce workplace inequalities."

Robin Stryker | Law & Social Inquiry

Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments

PART I. The Interplay of Law and Organizations

CHAPTER 1. Introduction
CHAPTER 2. The Endogeneity of Law
CHAPTER 3. Ambiguous Law and the Erosion of the Progressive Vision in the Courts

PART II. Law in the Workplace

CHAPTER 4. Professional Framing of the Legal Environment
CHAPTER 5. The Diffusion of Symbolic Structures
CHAPTER 6. The Managerialization of Law

PART III. The Workplace in Law

CHAPTER 7. The Mobilization of Symbolic Structures
CHAPTER 8. Legal Deference to Symbolic Compliance
CHAPTER 9. Symbolic Civil Rights and the Endogeneity of Law



American Sociological Association: ASA Distinguished Book Award

APSA Law and Courts Section: C. Herman Pritchett Award
Honorable Mention

Sociology of Law section, American Sociological Association: Distinguished Book Award

The Academy of Management: George R. Terry Book Award

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