Elizabeth Comack, ed. Locating Law: Race/Class/Gender Connections. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 1999, 352 pp., $29.95 paper.

The editor of this collection, Elizabeth Comack, says that she found it an energizing experience to work on the project (p. 9), and it is an energizing experience to read it. Comack’s introduction reminded me of the crucial importance of studying the reciprocal/dialectical relationship between law and society, and of understanding law within the nexus of racialized, class-based, and gendered social relations. This reminder is important for everyone, but especially for those such as myself who are teaching in law schools where the sociology of law still remains marginal. Comack’s essay on theory and the nine other original contributions point also to the necessity of analyzing race, class, and gender not only as markers of difference, but also as markers that produce and maintain hierarchical relations of inequality. Considerable data is provided in the chapters (written by sociologists, lawyers, and criminologists) to illustrate this point. Although the book does not situate itself as a feminist text per se, it reflects the significant impact that feminist approaches have had both on our understanding of the legal system and on emerging conceptual frameworks for analyzing the intersections of race, class, and gender, among other social relations of inequality. As well, several chapters remind us of the difference between struggles to transform the relations of social inequality underpinning the legal system and struggles that result in some accommodation by the legal system of the “differences” of oppressed groups (e.g. Patricia Monture-Angus, pp. 80-2).

This book works particularly well as a student text and would be an excellent choice for courses such as Sociology of Law or Social Inequality. The book is highly readable, which is not to say that each author writes in a similar style or that it offers a simplistic approach to the complex issues raised in it. For instance, Comack addresses the question of theory – much feared by many students, among others – in a manner that is easily engaged with in her chapter “Theoretical Excursions”. She adroitly uses the cornerstones of the modern legal system – impartiality, neutrality, and objectivity – to explore various theoretical approaches drawn from the sociology of law. At times I wanted a more detailed referencing of the works that Comack relies on and reviews, and more explicit treatment of approaches such as lesbian feminism, but she has managed to cover a great deal of material in a succinct manner. All authors must choose parameters for their work, and Comack has chosen to focus on race, class, and gender as “the primary bases on which inequality is produced and maintained” (p. 11). However, as she points out, “[c]arving out the race/class/gender dimensions of the law-society relation in this way . . . is very much an artificial construction’ (p. 15).

In addition to her essay on theoretical approaches in the sociology of law, Comack provides helpful introductions to each section of the book: Racism and the Law, Class Interests and the Law, and Gender, Sexuality, and the Law. In these introductions she places the essays into the context of, for instance, Canadian practices regarding race relations. Readers who are well versed in theoretical debates concerning the intersecting nature of race, class, and gender, as well as sexual orientation and disability, may find Comack’s approach rather preliminary (e.g. p. 61). Comack does not review efforts to theorize the intersectionality of race, class, and gender, by Canadians such as Nitya Iyer (1993), Radha Jhappan (1996, 1998), and Sherene Razack (1998). However, this book offers the virtue of introducing students to complex material on gender, race, and class in a clear and accessible manner. Moreover, in practice, many of the individual chapters, for example the one by Patricia Monture-Angus, make it patently clear that gender and race, for instance, can rarely be severed when one examines the actual lives of women, for example in the lives of First Nations women, or, as Sedef Arat-Koc demonstrates, in the lives of foreign domestic workers. Shelley Gavigan’s chapter on “Poverty Law, Theory, and Practice” highlights the role that gender, race, disability and immigrant status play in creating poverty and in impeding access to justice, while emphasizing that “[c]lass relations tell” (p. 222) and that poverty is highly gendered. Judy Fudge illuminates the different ways in which male and female workers have been treated under the law during the process of capitalist industrialization in Canada, thereby showing the importance of analyzing how class and gender intersect in the lives of Canadian workers. She also illustrates the ways in which formal legal equality “obscures the extent to which the law preserves and reinforces substantial social inequality” (161).

Several of the chapter authors draw out implications of the issues they discuss for various social relations of inequality other than those they are primarily concerned with. Thus, Dorothy Chunn’s chapter on “Feminism, Law, and ‘the Family’” notes how law reforms generate both positive and negative effects that are, in turn, mediated by gender, race, class, sexual orientation, and (dis)ability (p. 236). In a chapter that focuses mainly on the role of feminists in generating law reforms, she notes the ways in which law reforms have often failed to take account of the interests of lesbians and First Nations women, among others. Karen Busby’s chapter on how legal “truth” is determined in prosecutions of sexual violence shows that women with disabilities and First Nations women experience particular difficulties in establishing the “truth” of their experiences. Kirsten Johnson’s historical overview of “Obscenity, Gender, and the Law” points to the ways in which sexually explicit material imported by lesbian and gay bookstores has been disproportionately targeted since the Butler decision in which the feminist organization LEAF intervened. She thus illustrates the ways in which gendered, and specifically heterosexual, notions of sexuality are taken for granted and how gains for one disadvantaged group may at the same time hold negative implications for other historically disadvantaged groups. Reading this book made me wonder whether we have done a better job of tracing some of the connections between gender and sexual orientation, than of tracing the ways in which racialized power relations connect to inequalities related to sexual orientation. For example, in the otherwise excellent analyses of the ways in which immigration practices are racialized, class-based, and gendered by Lisa Marie Jakubowski and Sedef Arat-Koc, little mention is made of the ways in which immigration law and policy has been based on an ideology of heterosexuality. This normative underpinning has had an enormous impact not only on immigrant women, but also on lesbians and gay men who have sought immigration status for their partners.

Historical context plays an important role in many of the chapters in this book, as the authors trace historical processes through which legal regulation has reproduced the relations of inequality based on race, class, and gender. Several examples are provided of how changes to the laws on, for instance, work (Fudge) or immigration (Arat-Koc, Jakubowski) or family (Chunn) have not necessarily eradicated inequalities, but rather perpetuated them, albeit in importantly different ways. The need for historically specific analysis of law is thus highlighted in this book. Law is not always being changed for the
better, in an evolutionary manner. In a particularly powerful analysis, Laureen Snider shows that in our recent history, over the past two decades, measures to control corporate
crime that had been achieved through the struggle of workers, consumers, environmentalists, feminists, and other social movements have been systematically eradicated. She links this process of “making corporate crime disappear” to increasing globalization and the rise of transnational corporations, which have lessened the ability of national governments to regulate corporate activities. In an era when “backlash” to progressive reforms seems increasingly prevalent, Snider’s identification of a “corporate counter-revolution” is apt. As is the case in other chapters (e.g., Gavigan’s) we are reminded of the need to situate law within a political context.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that this book is very well produced. Unlike so many books that I read these days, careful editing and proofreading have eliminated typographical errors and other infelicities. I recommend it highly for anyone who wants an accessible, interesting, and readable introduction to the role that law plays in reproducing relations of gender, race, and class in Canadian society.


Iyer, Nitya. “Categorical Denials: Equality Rights and the Shaping of Social Identity." Queen’s Law Journal 19 (1993): 179-207.
Jhappan, Radha. “The Equality Pit or the Rehabilitation of Justice.” Canadian Journal of Women and the Law 10(1) (1998): 60-107.
Jhappan, Radha. “Post-Modern Race and Gender Essentialism or a Post-Mortem of Scholarship.” Studies in Political Economy 51 (1996): 15-63.
Razack, Sherene H. Looking White People in the Eye: Gender, Race, and Culture in Courtrooms and Classrooms. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.

Susan B. Boyd
Faculty of Law, University of British Columbia

September 1999
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