Status Quo Sui Generis: Is It A Myth?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary (2012) defines “status quo” as the “existing condition or state of affairs.” Objectively, law and society is in continuous change. The degree of change, however, is dependent upon the factors that influence and shape the world around us. Approaching this question with an administrational framework in mind, it would be argued that the purpose of law is to inhibit and challenge status quo. This stream of thought is supported by the idea that our country operates on a system of common-law whereby precedent holds influence over future cases thereby ensuring the state of affairs changes, and it certainly does (Act to confer the Electoral Franchise upon Women, 1919; The Constitution Act, 1982; Sexual Assault: Bill C-127 (1983); Firearms: Bill C-68 (1997)).

The problem with the administrative approach is that it is not human in nature or in character, and the status quo is integrated within our social and political systems. In other words, the purpose of law can exist sui generis but the status quo cannot; it requires social networks. The question then becomes: can the status quo exist sui generis? The purpose of law is in constant ebb and flow, and its character is shaped from contemporary milieu and the powers that be.

Applying a critical approach to the question at hand, some argue that the purpose of law is in fact to preserve the status quo. Taking this one step further, the purpose of law can be seen as a hegemonic form of imperial dominance as status quo is retained through the use of force and law. In terms of criminological orthodox theories, the focus has fundamentally concerned the individual, non-elite criminal who is ultimately punished. Various areas of law then further perpetuated the issue at hand as corrections system fail to regularly employ other methods of deterrence, as they were intended ad hoc.

Jeffrey Reiman argues the criminal justice system is designed to legitimize the status quo, which benefits those in control of wealth and resources by justifying the divisions of power (Reiman, 2000). In other words, those who have the power to change a system benefit from the way it currently (mal)functions. He refers to this a “pyrrhic victory,” meaning that a significant amount of harm is done unto society through the criminal justice system as it fails to deal with elite crime, shapes the status quo and ultimately impacts more people than street-street. Inherently, the judicial decision-making process of our court systems influences the status quo by way of precedent; though it can be proactive in terms of social issues or social movements challenging the existing state of affairs. The purpose of law, however, also serves to shift public dissatisfaction in opposition to low-level street crime rather than elite crime. And when it goes after the elites, it is designed to fail. This is because it is a reactionary force. In this respect, the purpose of law is to some extent a “pyrrhic defeat” as it is a win for the wealthy, and beneficiary power holders, but it is loss to society.

Accordingly, both the purpose and enforcement of law helps to maintain the status quo. The purpose of law is then seen as a victory as the story that it tells is that we should be afraid of street-crime, accept the status quo, accept domination and obey the social contract. If by chance you step out of line and try to challenge the status quo, perhaps then you shall bar yourself from attaining employment or land yourself in a prison cell for obstructing the law. This was the case for protestors of the 2010 G20 summit in Toronto. Despite this, their demonstrations were deemed to be “socially useful” as they directly positioned themselves against a more global status quo whereby mega-corporations hold enormous coercion over legal regimes (CBC News, 2012).

There is no doubt in my mind that the purpose of law is a combination of these two steams of thought. It is difficult not to feel positioned in the middle of these arguments as I live and operate within our society but have also had the opportunity to study criminology and sociology at university. On the one hand, the legal system is inherently structured to promote change in status quo. On the other hand, major structural changes to law and society can take years, decades or centuries to take shape and thus may feel as if the status quo is unchanged. Meanwhile, more often than not, slow and progressive change is necessary for the populace to understand the law and the status quo, equally. In the end, our common-law system is a playground whereby judicial decision makers playfully interact with the status quo each day. Perhaps there is a purpose of law, but maybe the purpose and the law has taken on a life of its own.

References

CBC News. (July 13, 2012). Crown Wants Jail Time For G20 Protester, http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/story/2012/07/13/toronto-g20-protester-sentencing.html (accessed on October 2, 2012).

Pavlich, G. 2011. Law & Society, Refined. London: Oxford University Press.

Reiman, Jeff. (2000). Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, The: Ideology, Class and Criminal Justice. Allyn & Bacon: London.

Status Quo. 2012. In Merriam-Webster.com. Retrieved October 4, 2012, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/statusquo

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Status Quo Sui Generis: Is It A Myth?

  1. Interesting post!

    Could you elaborate on what you mean by an ‘administrational framework’? Do you mean a framework concerned with the practices and processes associated with the administration of the legal system? Or are you referring to the framework of ‘administrative criminology’?

    It is great to see some engagement with Reiman’s work, and you have done a good job of representing is central ideas. If you are interested in this sort of analysis, I would recommend seeking out some of the Marxist treatises on law and social control that emerged during the 1970s, as part of the ‘New Criminologies’. Of particular interest are Chambliss’ works on the demystification of the legal system and Quinney’s commentaries on law, class, and the status quo.

    You are right to observe that the status quo is, at the level of detail, undergoing constant flux. Which, as you note, is a bit paradoxical, given that the concept implies a relatively static state of affairs. It is possible to bridge the two streams of thought (law as an agent of social change and law as a mechanism of status quo maintenance), or at least to adopt a perspective that integrates these notions. Richard Ericson’s work on ‘reproducing order’ is particularly helpful. Stanley Cohen’s work on the ‘master patterns’ of control is also important. His book ‘Visions of Social Control’ is an excellent commentary on the failures of the ‘restructuring’ movement and related efforts to reform prisons. The myriad specific reforms undertaken as part of the rise of ‘community corrections’ did not replace the prison, but reproduced its underlying logic throughout the social (an argument that echoes Foucault’s work in Discipline & Punish). Cohen’s study offers a window into the ways in which reform efforts (including law reform) can produce superficial changes that actually reinforce and reproduce the essential features of dominant systems. Let me know if you would like to check out any of these texts.

    Question: How can you establish additional connections between your analysis and the works of Roscoe Pound and / or the Legal Realists?

  2. In terms of an administrational framework, I am referring to the process and structure of the legal system. It is designed to move the state of affairs forward through precedent from former cases.

    (Aside: I see you mentioned the name “Stanley Cohen” and are surely referring to the sociologist. Coincidently, a defence attorney to the Paypal 14 case, associated with the hacktivist collective “Anonymous,” also has this name).

    When looking at Roscoe Pound’s work, he would argue that law can be used to advance society (Pavlich, p.59). For this reason, it would be contented that judicial-decision making processes can be a vehicle for social change. In the classroom, we discussed Pound and determined that he thought law could be used as a means to “progressive social change.” And it very well could. Pound also argues that “justice requires judges to use discretion carefully to the benefit of society” (p. 60). The notion of discretion, however, is systematically being stripped away from judges in Canada as ‘state representatives’ attempt to bring forth mandatory minimum sentencing. For this reason, it can be sad that law can be a vehicle for progressive social change but it can certainly be counterintuitive as well as politicized. Since the United States was attacked in 2001, it appears that more laws and bills have been passed that effectively revert the state and citizens into a preceding cold-war mentality where the notions and references to an “evil threat” lurk (Chomsky, 1989).

    Question: should society call into question the independence of our judicial system since judges are appointed by provincial and federal governments? Is there an alternate mode of designation that would be more conducive to progressive social change?

    Chomsky, Noam. (1989). Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies. South End Press: Cambridge.