Unleashing Rights

Law, Meaning, and the Animal Rights Movement
Helena Silverstein
How the animal rights movement has used the legal system and rights talk to advance social change


Unleashing Rights is a study of the animal rights movement's efforts to advance social reform through the deployment of legal language and practices. The study looks at how prevailing understandings of rights language have shaped the attempt to put forth the idea that animals have rights, and how this attempt, in turn, offers the opportunity to reconstruct the meaning of rights. The book also examines the way litigation has influenced the movement's activities and opportunities for success.

Presented here is an investigation of the legal system through a decentered, cultural approach. Legal languages and practices are viewed as a part of everyday life—constructed, used, and interpreted not only by those who run official legal institutions but also by everyday people with a legal consciousness. Using this approach, the book questions whether the deployment of rights and litigation by animal rights advocates has challenged prevailing legal meaning.

Looking to both the constitutive and instrumental aspects of law, and to how each informs the other, Unleashing Rights finds that the resort to rights and litigation has advanced movement goals and contributed to alternative constructions of legal meaning. The study concludes that despite their many constraints, both rights talk and litigation are powerful resources for those who seek change, especially when used by strategically minded activists.

Unleashing Rights is a book that illustrates the relationship between law, social movement activism, and social change. The book joins the ongoing debate within public law scholarship that is concerned with the effectiveness of legal strategies and languages. The book also speaks to those interested in the general study of social movements and in the particular study of the animal rights movement. With its cultural approach focused on rights language and the construction of meaning, the work will be of interest to the disciplines of law and political science, as well as those who study sociology, anthropology, and philosophy.

Helena Silverstein is F. M. Kirby Assistant Professor of Government and Law, Lafayette College.

Praise / Awards

  • "In examining the animal rights movement, Silverstein gives us a valuable account of what it means to see law as constitutive. She links her approach to law in society. Her framework takes seriously the notion that law is not just influenced by society, as the power of movements to change the law. Nor is society simply a receiver of law, as in the effect of high court decisions on police practices. The point of this book is that law has a life beyond courts and lawyers' offices. . . . Unleashing Rights, and similar work from anthropologists and political scientists, seems to stand with reference to a constitutive perspective on law, much as impact studies did for early law and society work. The study of social movements is a stage which draws on the insights from legal pluralism and the critiques that have advanced pluralist projects. It appears to be necessary first to describe the way law constitutes some of our more dramatic forms of political expression."
    American Political Science Review
  • ". . . particularly fascinating in its analysis of the views of animal rights activists and lawyers, many of whom were interviewed by the author."
    Animals' Agenda
  • "Silverstein approaches her topic as a scholar of public law, investigating interactions between the US legal system and a social movement that has included the use of legal language and litigation among its tactics. Through her 'decentered cultural approach' Silverstein arrives at some pleasingly counterintuitive findings. For example, rights claims are often criticized as being inherently selfish and divisive. But as she points out, rights claims on behalf of sentient agents unable to assert claims on their own behalf (animals and infant, senile, or incapacitated humans) can extend the legal meaning of rights, and contribute to formation of an expanded community."
  • "[Silverstein] explores the struggles of animal rights activists as an unusually rich and focused instance of contests about rights and legal meaning generally."
    —Bronwen Morgan, St. Hilda's College, University of Oxford, Law and Social Inquiry
  • "...Unleashing Rights is a worthwhile book that, among many other things, recognizes the success—and limitations—of the animal rights movement at this time."
    —David J. Wolfson, The Animals' Agenda

Look Inside


1.Constituting Legal Meaning-1
2.Expanding the Circle: The Evolution of Animal Rights-27
3.The Political Deployment of Rights-55
4.Rights Strategically Understood-81
5.Animals in the Courtroom: The Direct Effects of Litigation-123
6.Beyond the Courtroom: The Multiple Uses of Litigation-161
7. Litigative Practice and the Constitution of Meaning-185
8.Conclusion: Meaning and Identity-221
Appendix A. Notes on Data Gathering-243
Appendix B. Animal Advocacy Groups-251

Product Details

  • 320 pages.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Ebook
  • 2009
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-02281-6

  • PDF: Adobe Digital Editions e-book (DRM Protected)

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