Social Movements, Law, and Society: The Institutionalization of the Environmental Movement

32 Pages Posted: 1 Feb 2002 Last revised: 25 Jun 2014

See all articles by Cary Coglianese

Cary Coglianese

University of Pennsylvania Law School

Date Written: November 1, 2001


As conventionally understood, social movements, law reform, and society interact in a unidirectional fashion. Social movements seek to secure law reform; in turn, changes in the law bring about changes in society. While this conventional understanding may be helpful for some purposes, it is an incomplete empirical account that can lead reformers mistakenly to think that legal change is sufficient in order to achieve changed social conditions. In fact, social movements, law, and society interact with each other in much more complex, dynamic ways. Through an examination of the environmental movement in the United States, I show how a successful social movement not only uses law reform to change society, but how it also depends on changes in society to sustain its law reform efforts. For the environmental movement, the public's consistent acceptance of environmental values has helped sustain the laws brought about by the movement, even in the face of significant resistance. Even though social movements use law reform to affect society, society in turn affects the success of law reform. As a result, sustainable social movements will combine efforts at legal change with efforts to change underlying social values.

Keywords: Advocacy and Persuasion, Environment and Natural Resources, Law and Legal Institutions, Political Science

Suggested Citation

Coglianese, Cary, Social Movements, Law, and Society: The Institutionalization of the Environmental Movement (November 1, 2001). University of Pennsylvania Law Review, Vol. 150, Pg. 85, 2001; John F. Kennedy School of Government Working Paper Series RWP01-046. Available at SSRN: or

Cary Coglianese (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania Law School ( email )

3501 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States
215-898-6867 (Phone)


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