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Jumping into the ocean of socio-legal research

“So, what does it take to turn law from paper into practice?”, I asked myself that morning in the Northern part of Florence where me and my family had been living a couple of weeks back in May 2014. I went to sit in my favorite corner at the university library to do what I normally did at that time: reading up on theoretical perspectives from a range of disciplines regarding the relationship between law and society, from the classics of Durkheim, Luhmann, Weber and Habermas, to newer contributions from Cotterrell, Nelken and Banakar.

A few hours later, a new normal had arrived. Over coffee, I met with Professor Adrienne Héritier who had kindly accepted to act as supervisor during my research stay at the European University Institute. Héritier welcomed me in her office. She thanked me for the paper I had shared with her. It presented my PhD project and particularly the theories I wanted to take to the field and apply in my investigation of the ongoing struggles in this Northern part of Italy with Chinese businesses that fail to live up to basic standards of Italian law. Rather than engaging with my theoretical framework, Professor Héritier really just said: “Don’t sit here. Go out and ask everyone you meet about the situation. Find out where the interesting story is!”

That was the message. Walking out of the building, I kept repeating the same sentence to myself: “She is so right! I have to jump into the ocean!”. Over the next two months, I visited almost every corner of Prato – a city 20 minutes from Florence that hosts the largest Chinese community in Europe – to find out what this struggle between the Chinese firms and Italian law was all about, why it was seemingly so hard to get the Chinese company owners to operate according to the law, and what the Italian authorities did about it. Put differently, I jumped into the ocean of socio-legal research, and I have been swimming in it ever since.

Entering Via Piestoese: Prato’s “Chinatown” (Private photo  May 2014)

The Cathedral of Santo Stefano in the city centre of Prato  (Private photo May 2014)


The Cathedral of Santo Stefano in the city centre of Prato (private photo May  2014)

Banner: “Full legality - Prato combats all systems of illegality”  (private photo May 2014)


Banner: “Full legality - Prato combats all systems of illegality”  (private photo May 2014)

Entering Via Piestoese: Prato’s “Chinatown” (private photo May 2014)

What drove me then and what continues to drive me today is a great wish to contribute to the development of public systems that respect and protect citizens’ rights. This is why I find JUST SOCIETY so exciting. The project is tuned in to solve real-life issues of how to ensure equal access to justice, using teaching and research collaboration as entrance points.

My contribution to JUST SOCIETY is the study of the social life of law. Everyday law and society interact. For example, law is communicated, interpreted and enforced in society by a great number of actors, and society responds to those activities in various ways. The social life of law does not always take shape in the way it was intended. Enforcement agencies often meet unexpected obstacles when trying to promote law compliance, and citizens tend to feel ill-informed about their rights and duties. Simply put, it is one thing to adopt new legislation but a whole other issue to make it work as intended.

In JUST SOCIETY, I will seek to uncover and explain the social life of law in specific welfare areas, such as health care and social protection. To do so, I will draw on classical sociological theories in combination with empirical studies on the role of law in organizing societies within the borders of the nation state. The established socio-legal literature provides an endless number of tools and insights that I will ensure feed into and inform our activities in JUST SOCIETY. Put differently, I will pull JUST SOCIETY with me into the ocean of socio-legal research.

I look so much forward to swimming and diving together with the rest of the JUST SOCIETY team as well as with our collaborators to find new and innovative ways of building just societies. May the journey begin!

Louise Munkholm

9 April 2021

Responsible for page: Social Science

Last Updated 26.08.2021