The Possibility of Popular Justice

A Case Study of Community Mediation in the United States
Sally Engle Merry and Neal Milner, Editors
Can popular justice ever be a real alternative to the violence and coercion of state law?


Can popular justice ever be a real alternative to the violence and coercion of state law? To answer this question, The Possibility of Popular Justice describes and analyzes the experiences of one of the best known cases of community mediation—the San Francisco Community Boards.

The SFCB program is firmly rooted in the ideals of the alternative dispute resolution movement: popular sovereignty, direct governance, the capacity of judges to exercise social power autonomously, and a minimum level of bureaucracy. Yet even this program embodies contradictions inherent in many popular justice systems, since it borrows procedures, symbols, rituals, and language from the invasive state law it seeks to replace.

Half of the essays presented here grew out of a major research project on the SFCB directed by Fred DuBow; half seek to define popular justice and debate whether such programs can ever be either popular or just. The essays emphasize the mutually constitutive character of law and society and examine how the surrounding social context reshapes and subverts a visionary program of community-controlled popular justice.

Sally Engle Merry is Professor of Anthropology, Wellesley College.

Neal Milner is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Program on Conflict Resolution, University of Hawaii.

Praise / Awards

  • "You do not have to be involved in mediation to appreciate this book. The authors use the case as a launching pad to evaluate the possibilities and 'impossibilities' of building community in complex urban areas and pursuing popular justice in the shadow of state law."
    —Deborah M. Kolb, Harvard Law School and Simmons College
  • "This in-depth study of the San Francisco Community Boards is a fitting tribute to the initiators of both the program, Ray Shonholtz, and the investigation, Red DuBow. The first evaluation of any mediation program by such a distinguished group of social scientists, it shuns the usual criteria (caseload, client satisfaction) to address the fundamental issue posed by its title. It asks hard questions about whether mediation can promote justice, be popular, serve a community, and empower. Acutely aware of the twin dangers of marginality and cooperation, the authors give answers that are neither the dreamer's condescending dismissal nor the true believer's unwavering conviction."
    —Richard Abel, UCLA Law School
  • "Few collections are so well integrated, analytically penetrating, or as readable as this fascinating account. It is a 'must read' for anyone interested in community mediation."
    —William M. O'Barr, Duke University
  • ". . . important to the growing literature on community empowerment."
  • ". . . there is something for just about any reader who is interested in community mediation. . . ."
    Federal Lawyer
  • "These immensely important articles—fifteen in all—take several academic perspectives on the program's diverse history, impact, and implications for 'popular justice.' These articles will richly inform the program, polemical, and political perspectives of anyone working on 'alternative programs' of any sort."
    IARCA Journal
  • "The Possibility of Popular Justice is essential reading for scholars and practitioners of community mediation and should be very high on the list of anyone seriously concerned with dispute resolution in general. The book offers many rewards for the advanced student of law and society studies."
    Law and Politics Book Review

Look Inside

Part 1. Defining Popular Justice
Sally Engle Merry and Neal Milner          3
Sorting Out Popular Justice
Sally Engle Merry          31
The Future of Alternative Dispute Resolution: Reflections on ADR as a Social Movement
Peter S. Adler          67
Evaluation of Community-Justice Programs
Kem Lowry          89
Part 2. San Francisco Community Boards and the Meaning of Community Mediation
Community Boards: An Analytic Profile
Fredric L. DuBow and Craig Ewen          125
Organizing for Community Mediation: The Legacy of Community Boards of San Francisco as a Social-Movement Organization
Douglas R. Thomson and Fredric L. DuBow          169
Justice from Another Perspective: The Ideology and Developmental History of the Community Boards Program
Raymon Shonholtz          201
What Mediation Training Says—or Doesn't Say—about the Ideology and Culture of North American Community-Justice Programs
Vicki Shook and Neal Milner          239
Dispute Transformation, the Influence of a Communication Paradigm of Disputing, and the San Francisco Community Boards Program
Judy H. Rothschild          265
Police and "Nonstranger" Conflicts in a San Francisco Neighborhood: Notes on Mediation and Intimate Violence
Fredric L. DuBow with Elliot Currie          329
Part 3. Contested Words: Community, Justice, Empowerment, and Popular          
The Paradox of Popular Justice: A Practitioner's View
John Paul Lederach and Ron Kraybill          357
Local People, Local Problems, and Neighborhood Justice: The Discourse of "Community" in San Francisco Community Boards
Barbara Yngvesson          379
Community Organizing through Conflict Resolution
Christine B. Harrington          401
When Is Popular Justice Popular?
Laura Nader          435
The Impossibility of Popular Justice
Peter Fitzpatrick          453
Contributors          475
Index          479

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 504pp.
  • numerous tables.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Hardcover
  • 1994
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-10426-0

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  • $95.00 U.S.

  • Paper
  • 1995
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-08344-2

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  • $38.95 U.S.

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