The Role of Emotion in Land Regulation: An Empirical Study of Online Advocacy in Authoritarian Asia

Date01 March 2018
Published date01 March 2018
The Role of Emotion in Land Regulation: An
Empirical Study of Online Advocacy in
Authoritarian Asia
John Gillespie
Scholarly interest about online advocacy in authoritarian settings is rapidly
growing. With one of Asia’s most active social media, Vietnam offers a promis-
ing site to investigate how online advocates navigate around state censorship
to influence regulatory decisionmaking. Much research about online advocacy
focuses on rational discourse, and fails to ask why satire and ridicule can
change regulatory outcomes when reasoned debate fails. This article consid-
ers two cases studies where online advocates changed regulatory outcomes in
Vietnam. It investigates why the regulators were sensitive to moral censure in
social media, and responded to appeals for solidarity, but were reluctant to
engage in rational public deliberation. These findings reveal insights into how
online advocacy can trigger emotional responses in officials that transform the
regulatory environment. The article concludes that rather than constituting
cognitive missteps, emotions are integral to government regulation in
Scholarly interest regarding online advocacy
in authoritarian
settings is growing rapidly (Land 2009; Lei and Zhou 2015;
Rauchfleisch and Sch
afer 2015). The critical role of online advo-
cacy in fomenting the Jasmine Revolutions in North Africa
(Chandler 2012) and in shaping legal and regulatory decision-
making in China has been well researched (Lei and Zhou 2015;
Tang 2015). Studies show that even authoritarian regimes, with
their urge to control electoral processes, courts, and public dis-
course, struggle to co-opt the diverse online exchanges that
frame regulatory decisionmaking (Tang 2015; Wells-Dang 2012).
Thank you to Dr. Nguyen Van Thang and the research team from the National Eco-
nomic University, Hanoi and to T & C Consulting for conducting the initial round of inter-
views for the C
ai R
ang and Ph
uMHưng case studies. I also owe a debt of gratitude to the
government officials, land users, bloggers, and lawyers who agreed to be interviewed, and
to The Asia Foundation for coordinating and funding the case studies.
Please direct all correspondence to John Gillespie, Monash University—Business Law
Department, PO Box 197 Caulfield East, Melbourne, VIC 3146, Australia; email: john.gil-
The term online advocacy refers to the use of the Internet, especially social media, to
educate and develop awareness about social issues and create pressure for policy and regu-
latory reform (Land 2009).
Law & Society Review, Volume 52, Number 1 (2018)
C2017 Law and Society Association. All rights reserved.
Much research about online advocacy focuses on “rational” dis-
and fails to ask why satire and ridicule can change regu-
latory outcomes when reasoned debate fails (Lei and Zhou 2015;
Tang 2015). This article takes up this inquiry by exploring how
online advocacy can trigger emotional responses
that shape reg-
ulatory decisionmaking in Vietnam.
Possessing one of Asia’s most active social media environ-
Vietnam is a promising country in which to investigate
online advocacy. Vietnamese bloggers have advocated regulatory
reform in diverse areas such as the constitutional separation of
powers (Morris-Jung 2015), same-sex marriage (Quinn and Kier-
ans 2010), and environmental protection (Grey 2015; Wells-Dang
2012). This article advances the literature by investigating how
online advocates influenced urban regulation. It explores a regu-
latory puzzle: how does online advocacy overcome Soviet-based
governance practices in Vietnam, which insist on rational and sci-
entific regulatory processes (Pha
em 2013), and arouse emo-
tional responses in regulators that open them to new ways of
understanding and governing cities?
It turns out that the conceptual divide between rational and
emotional regulation has deep historical roots. As Maroney
(2006: 120) explains:
A core presumption underlying modern legality is that reason
and emotion are different beasts entirely: they belong to sepa-
rate spheres of human existence; the sphere of law admits
only of reason; and vigilant policing is required to keep emo-
tion from creeping in where it does not belong.
This duality of reason and emotion has shaped legal theory
well beyond Europe (Habermas 1992: 10–27) and America
(Abrams and Keren 2010: 2003–08). It arguably reached a zenith
in scientific and rational Soviet governance (Quigley 1989), which
then influenced government regulators in China and Vietnam
(Gillespie 2011; Pha
em 2013). In both Western and socialist
legal traditions, government regulation is regarded as the prod-
uct of well-prepared and systematic rational processes that codify
Drawing on Habermas’s (1987: 164–97) notion of “ideal speech,” the term rational
refers to logical and reasoned processes.
Emotional responses refer to the feelings and sensations of physical arousal, such as
happiness, surprise, fear, disgust, anger, and sadness, mentioned in the psychology litera-
ture (Oatley et al. 2006: 3–32), as well as the cultural labels applied to specific types of feel-
ings and sentiments that drive people to care about particular outcomes and take action for
change (Elster 2007: 160–61; Higgett and Thompson 2012: 2–4).
In 2015, 52 percent of the population regularly accessed the Internet (Chabro Net
2015; Grey 2015).
Gillespie 107
relevant information. Emotions, and those aspects of social life
involving feelings, are considered messy, unbounded, and outside
regulatory processes.
This article turns to a growing body of research that chal-
lenges this dualistic thinking. Social science has long recognized
that emotions are inextricably linked to thoughts and beliefs
(Durkheim 2001). Transporting this work into the legal arena,
feminist scholars such as Minow and Spelman (1988) questioned
the assumption that emotion is distinct from, and alien to, legal
and regulatory decisionmaking, and then queried the qualities of
detachment and impartiality that are conventionally associated
with legal reasoning. Adding to this body of work, Felstiner
et al.’s (1980: 632–37) seminal “naming, blaming and claiming”
study revealed the critical role that emotions play in the emer-
gence and regulation of disputes. This scholarship departed from
previous legal studies by treating emotions as instruments that
fine-tune legal decisionmaking, rather than impulses that lead us
astray (Abrams and Keren 2010; Maroney 2016).
More recent studies have examined how emotion influences
the actors who populate legal systems, such as litigants (Huang
and Wu 1992), judges (Bandes 2009), lawyers (Ammar and
Downey 2003), and juries (Sarat 2001). They have also explored
the roles emotions play in multiple legal contexts, including crim-
inal law (Lynch and Haney 2015), contract law (Keren 2010), and
family law (Huntington 2008). Leading researchers now argue
that law and emotion scholarship has reached a critical juncture
(Abrams and Keren 2010; Bandes and Blumenthal 2012; Maro-
ney 2016). If emotion is integral to law, “the question becomes
not whether emotion can have a role in law, but what kinds of
emotions operate in particular contexts and what sort of a role
do they play?” (Abrams and Keren 2010: 2009). Taking up this
inquiry, this article explores how online advocacy triggers emo-
tional responses that influence land administration in Vietnam.
In contrast to the rapidly expanding law and emotion litera-
ture, comparatively little has been written about how emotions
influence regulatory decisionmaking. This omission is surprising
because the regulatory studies literature discusses a vast array of
regulatory methods, such as naming and shaming and restorative
justice (Braithwaite 1989), that aim to control behavior by guid-
ing emotional responses. The concepts of “responsive regulation”
and “relational regulation” come closer to emotional decision-
making, by drawing our attention to the tacit and unspoken
interactions between regulators and regulated (Silbey 2011).
However Lange (2002) is one of the few scholars to examine how
regulatory decisionmaking is itself the outcome of emotional pro-
cesses. She questions the assumption that both regulators and
108 The Role of Emotion in Land Regulation

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