Globalization and the Decline of Legal Consciousness: Torts, Ghosts, and Karma in Thailand

Posted: 25 Oct 2005


This article critically examines the assumption that globalization brings in its wake a heightened consciousness of the rule of law and a greater propensity to invoke legal concepts and institutions to structure social interactions and protect rights. It presents findings that directly contradict this assumption, and it suggests instead that globalization may result in a diminished consciousness of law and a decline in the use of legal norms and institutions.

Most studies of law and globalization are skewed by their exclusive focus on fields of activity in which trans-national actors are most heavily involved. They take the activities of such actors as self-evident confirmation that the role of liberal legalism has expanded. Yet these studies cannot tell us whether this form of legality has in fact become more significant in other sectors of society or whether its role is confined largely to the activities of those who most strenuously seek to disseminate it - namely, local elites and Euro-American promoters of the rule of law.

This study takes a very different approach. It explores the legal consciousness of ordinary people in a country - Thailand - that has experienced radical social and economic change during the past twenty years. It focuses on a subject area - injuries and the potential use of tort law - in which the promoters of liberal legalism have not been particularly active, and asks whether seriously injured Thai citizens whose lives have been changed in many ways by globalization tend as a result to perceive their injuries in legal terms and whether they consider using tort law to obtain compensation. The study relies on "injury narratives" derived from in-depth Thai-language interviews, and it compares the results of these narratives to litigation data from 1965 to the present in a Thai trial court.

When law and globalization are viewed through the lens of personal injury cases, it appears that social and economic changes have led to a decline in legal consciousness and in the use of law and legal institutions to obtain compensation. Despite a proliferation of new laws and courts and an expansion of the legal profession in Thailand, the injury narratives reveal a new version of religiosity which has come to be positioned in opposition to law, and it is this new, "fundamental" form of Buddhism rather than liberal legalism that is nearly always invoked when injuries occur. The results of this study may have implications for other societies, including the United States, in which new forms of religious belief have emerged during an era of globalization and are seen by some adherents as incompatible with legal norms and institutions.

Suggested Citation

Engel, David M., Globalization and the Decline of Legal Consciousness: Torts, Ghosts, and Karma in Thailand. Law & Social Inquiry, Vol. 30, pp. 469-514, 2005, Available at SSRN:

David M. Engel (Contact Author)

SUNY Buffalo Law School ( email )

415 O'Brian Hall
Buffalo, NY 14260-1100
United States

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