Everyone Knows the Game: Legal Consciousness in the Hawaiian Cockfight

Date01 September 2014
AuthorKathryne M. Young
Publication Date01 September 2014
Everyone Knows the Game: Legal Consciousness in
the Hawaiian Cockfight
Kathryne M. Young
Past legal consciousness research has revealed a great deal about what indi-
viduals think and do with regard to law, but less attention has been paid to the
social processes that underpin these attitudes, beliefs, and actions. This article
focuses particularly on a “second-order” layer of legal consciousness: people’s
perceptions about how others understand the law. Ethnographic observations
and in-depth interviews with cockfighters in rural Hawaii reveal how law
enforcement practices not only affect cockfighting rituals, but are embedded
within them. Police practices and informal rules work in concert to shape
fighters’ second-order beliefs. These beliefs have implications for participants’
understanding of central concepts, including order, disorder, and illegality.
Examining legal consciousness from a second-order perspective also under-
scores that notions of legitimacy are constantly created and recreated. Recog-
nizing legitimacy’s inherently relational nature helps us understand how
experiences of law are synthesized into beliefs—for example, when an unusual
police action directed toward a subgroup of fighters compromised the law’s
legitimacy for them. Foregrounding the relational nature of legal conscious-
ness offers scholars a means to better understand and operationalize the
dynamic nature of human relationships to law.
Cockfighting is illegal throughout the United States. But
although its criminalization drives the practice underground, cock-
fighting retains iconic cultural status in Hawaii, thriving among
dedicated aficionados—a racially diverse, working-class group of
men ranging in age from their teens to their eighties. The large
weekly cockfights on the island of “Moa”1draw hundreds of people
I am grateful to Rebecca Sandefur, who fundamentally shaped my understanding of
how law works, and Monica McDermott, who taught me how to be an ethnographer. Both
of them not only encouraged this project from its inception, but thoughtfully critiqued
multiple drafts. I am indebted as well to Shelley Correll, Robert Weisberg, and a generous
anonymous reviewer for insight and direction, and to Elizabeth Gaudet for keen editorial
advice. Conversations with Valerie Jenness, Pamela Karlan, Linda Hamilton Krieger, and
Mona Lynch sharpened my thinking about legal consciousness. I am also grateful to Karen
Cook, George Fisher,Barbara Fried, Amalia Kessler, Bernadette Meyler,Marc Tafolla, and
the editors of Law & Society Review.
Please direct all correspondence to Kathryne M. Young, Stanford Criminal Justice
Center, Stanford Law School, Crown Quadrangle, 559 Nathan Abbott Way, Stanford, CA
94305-8610; e-mail: kmyoung@stanford.edu.
1“Moa” is a pseudonym. I should note, however, that the study did not takeplace on
Oahu, which has more of a “cat and mouse” culture with regard to policing cockfights. I
Law & Society Review, Volume 48, Number 3 (2014)
© 2014 Law and Society Association. All rights reserved.
each week. Two roosters, knives strapped to their feet, fight to the
death in every match while participants and spectators wager on
the outcomes.
Cockfighting arrests occur regularly on. They bear little resem-
blance to Geertz’s iconic portrayal, wherein a raid prompts the
crowd to scatter and flee (1971: 1–2). Instead, police interrupt
fights only briefly, in a predictable pattern of “busts.” Rather than
deterring cockfights, law enforcement processes are essentially
phagocytized. Police do not merely act upon a fight; their actions
sustain a role for law enforcement within the cockfighting ritual.
Throughout the cockfight, participants define, enact, and
maintain a distinct notion of order. The messages cockfighters
derive from each other and from police actions influences the
fights’ social structure and participants’ legal consciousness. In
this article, I pay particular attention to the fighters’ attitudes
toward police and how the fighters come to hold or change these
beliefs. The data illustrate how a person’s orientation toward law in
a given situation is the fruit of a complex and dynamic set of
processes involving numerous components—his experiences, atti-
tudes, understanding of his identities, and his beliefs about social
norms. In this way, legal consciousness is constantly created and
Contemporary legal consciousness literature centers more on
identifying states of legal consciousness than on examining under-
lying processes. Silbey has observed the work’s tendency to report
beliefs various groups hold, underscoring commonalities in peo-
ple’s thoughts about law. Another vein of work describes the het-
erogeneity of legal attitudes and beliefs, often within the same social
group (Silbey 2005). “Rather than explaining how the different
experiences of law become synthesized into a set of circulating,
often taken-for-granted understandings and habits, much of the
literature tracks what particular individuals think and do” (Silbey
2005: 324). Put differently: too much product; not enough process.
Here, I track what cockfighters think and do with regard to law,
but more importantly, I illustrate how their experiences of law
translate into beliefs about order and legitimacy, and how these
beliefs influence the cockfights’ social structure. I remain interested
in individual-level beliefs, but propose that we can gain insight
about consciousness by considering the individual relationally. A
person’s beliefs about, and attitude toward, a particular law or set of
laws is influenced not only by his own experience, but by his
understanding of others’ experiences with, and beliefs about, the
law. In considering how a greater focus on relationality might
also use pseudonyms throughout this article to protect the identities of cockfighters and
other informants, and occasionally alter other immaterial details for the same reason.
500 Legal Consciousness in the Hawaiian Cockfight
advance our understanding of legal consciousness, I draw on
multiple literatures: procedural justice and legitimacy; identity
theory; legal pluralism. These research agendas can be fused with
a more dynamic account of legal consciousness that not only com-
plicates the agendas themselves, but advances the discourse by
foregrounding the social processes that create legal consciousness.
How People Relate to Law
Often defined as an “outcome of social processes through which
meanings and identities are collectively reconstructed” (Sommers
and Roberts 2008: 23, citing Merry 1990: 247), legal consciousness
draws on sociological and anthropological traditions, encompassing
a person’s attitudes toward, willingness to mobilize, suppositions
about, and experiences of the law (Young 2009: 68–69). It is her
“commonsense understanding” of how the law works (Nielsen
2004: 7).
Second-Order Legal Consciousness
Some scholars construe legal consciousness as residing primar-
ily within individuals: documenting the beliefs various groups hold,
underscoring intergroup commonalities, or emphasizing a hetero-
geneity of attitudes and beliefs about law under various circum-
stances (Boittin 2013; Ewick and Silbey 1998; Harding 2006; Sarat
1990). This work has examined the demographic factors correlated
with particular beliefs (Hirsh and Lyons 2010; Nielsen 2000;
Wagatsuma and Rosett 1987), as well as how attitudes and beliefs
lead people to act (Sandefur 2007; Pleasence and Balmer 2013;
Riggs, Edelman, and Matusik 2000). Other research has high-
lighted the social nature of legal consciousness, “identify[ing]
the understandings and meanings of law that circulate in social
relations” (Silbey 2001; see also DeLand 2013; Gallagher 2006;
Hoffmann 2003).
Although less attention has been paid to the social processes
that concretize people’s “experiences of law into attitudes and
beliefs” (Silbey 2005), individual- and group-level analytical
approaches are not at odds; each implicates the other. We can talk
about a person’s beliefs as part of her legal consciousness, and at the
same time, shared elements of consciousness among individuals
comprise the legal consciousness of a group or local community—
which, in turn, affects individuals’ understandings of law. But it is
less clear how individual and group analyses inform each other. If
legal consciousness is a social process, how do social processes affect
the consciousness of an individual?
Young 501

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