The Humdrum of Legality and the Ordering of an Ethic of Care

Date01 December 2014
Published date01 December 2014
The Humdrum of Legality and the Ordering of an
Ethic of Care
Prashan Ranasinghe
This paper provides an ethnographic analysis of the ways that employees of an
emergency shelter create and maintain order. The paper applies the frame-
work of legal consciousness to explicate the practices of the employees that
amount to “private ordering.” The employees administer the rules of the
shelter in the context of an “ethic of care,” but one that is outside the purview
of formal law. This ethic, however, is polysemic, and the employees, therefore,
must adopt diverse styles based on their understandings of their professional
roles regarding the needs of the clients. The practices of two employees are
highlighted in detail, whose strategies in applying and maintaining adherence
to shelter rules are at the opposite ends of the spectrum. Both make decisions
in a somewhat spontaneous and, more importantly, inconsistent, fashion.
Despite the complications that arise from applying the rules as such, the
employees tolerate, even laud and celebrate, these methods. While this system
of private ordering has little resemblance to the ordered, consistent, and rigid
application of formal law, it allows the employees to administer diverse strat-
egies of ethics of care and shape practices to fit their professional roles
and the complex exigencies of an emergency shelter. The paper locates the
extant private ordering not in the law, nor in its shadow—assumed to be
preconditions—but outside or beyond them. Given that this ordering is
founded against the law—it is not law, nor law-like and has no desire to so
be—the paper suggests that it can be thought of as private ordering proper
and lays the framework for theorization that accounts for its instrumental and
symbolic dimensions.
Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the Third Annual National Conference,
“Critical Perspectives: Criminology and Social Justice,” University of Ottawa, May 4, 2013
and the American Sociological Association Annual Meetings, New York City, New York,
August 11, 2013. I am most grateful to Richard Dubé and the two anonymous reviewers
who provided extremely helpful, constructive, and invaluable comments that have greatly
improved the paper. As well, the sound and straightforward direction received from the
editors of the Law & Society Review was immensely helpful and greatly appreciated. I am also
grateful to Lisha Di Gioacchino for her research assistance on this project. What is narrated
here would not be possible without the cooperation of the numerous personnel at the
shelter who warmly welcomed me and permitted and tolerated my intrusions into their
work (and, in some cases, personal) lives, all the while patiently responding to the litany
of questions I posed. For this, I am extremely appreciative and grateful. The usual
disclaimers, of course, apply.
Please direct all correspondence to Prashan Ranasinghe, Department of Criminology,
University of Ottawa, 120 University Street, Ottawa, ON, Canada K1N 6N5; e-mail:
Law & Society Review, Volume 48, Number 4 (2014)
© 2014 Law and Society Association. All rights reserved.
An emergency shelter1is an institution conceived primarily with
welfare in mind. Its ethos is an ethic of care (see Thomas 1993).
Based on the meaning of the word ethics—as an injunction,
grounded upon moral principles, to act—I utilize the term ethic of
care to refer to the provision of myriad services, ranging, for
example, from the essentials of life, such as food and shelter, cloth-
ing and medical treatment, to miscellaneous services, such as
treatment for drug and alcohol addictions or aid with securing
employment or welfare, all of which is grounded upon and but-
tressed by a moral commitment and, thus, desire, to serve and help
those in need. That the discourse of the shelter, like many others
(see Conradson 2003; Friedman 1994; Karabanow 2002), is
unequivocally about an ethic of care is found in its legality. By
legality I refer to two interrelated aspects; first, the official and
(often) codified norms, evinced in legislation or rules, and, second,
the ways these are thought about and made sense of by actors, that
is, legal consciousness (see Ewick and Silbey 1998: 22–23).
This paper draws on an ethnography of an emergency shelter
for men in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. The daily operations of the
shelter unfold in two ways. First, the shelter is governed by law, for
example, provincial legislation and by-laws of the city, which shapes
its role and function—the province of Ontario’s Occupational Health
and Safety Act (1990), which regulates safety in the workplace, is one
example. Second, myriad in-house rules and regulations—the
focus of this paper—are crucial because they underscore the tenor
and climate of the shelter. They seek to capture, mimic, and rep-
resent the ethic of care and it is in this attempt that light is shone
not only on the limitations of law (as a broader aspect of rules) but
also on the struggles that ensue in the discursive production of the
narrative(s) of a particular site.
Despite being founded upon such an ethic, however, its imple-
mentation is, often, not as straightforward and simple, but, rather,
marred by a complex array of issues (see Loseke 1992; Ranasinghe
2013a; Williams 2003). The law—in this particular case, rules—for
all its purposes, functions in one way, namely, it must be unequivo-
cal about what it stands for: where it does not, it fails to be clear and
efficient and, therefore, is in need of revision or interpretation, or,
at worst, abandonment. The law, in other words, can only operate
1While it is impossible to deny that the clientele of such shelters are visibly poor, it is
unclear and difficult to know whether they are “homeless,” a problem that arises because
the term lacks clarity (compare the myriad narratives of visible poverty, some focusing on
homelessness, others on mental illness and still others on battered women, in Seider, 2010;
Glasser, 1988; Ferrill, 1991; Connolly, 2000; Liebow, 1993; Williams, 2003; Loseke, 1992;
and Desjarlais, 1997; on the difficulties of classification, see Hopper 2003: 15–24; and Rossi,
1989: 10–13; 45–81, the latter (1989: 13) admitting that, “In the end we are forced to resort
to a certain arbitrariness” when classifying and counting the homeless).
710 The Humdrum of Legality

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