Knop, Michaels and Riles on Feminism, Culture and the Conflict of Laws


Karen Knop (University of Toronto), Ralf Michaels (Duke) and Annelise Riles (Cornell) have posted From Multiculturalism to Technique: Feminism, Culture and the Conflict of Laws Style on SSRN. The abstract reads:

The German chancellor, the French president and the British prime minister have each grabbed world headlines with pronouncements that their state’s policy of multiculturalism has failed. As so often, domestic debates about multiculturalism, as well as foreign policy debates about human rights in non-Western countries, revolve around the treatment of women. Yet there is also a widely noted brain drain from feminism. Feminists are no longer even certain how to frame, let alone resolve, the issues raised by veiling, polygamy and other cultural practices oppressive to women by Western standards. Feminism has become perplexed by the very concept of “culture.” This impasse is detrimental both to women’s equality and to concerns for cultural autonomy.

We propose shifting gears. Our approach draws on what, at first glance, would seem to be an unpromising legal paradigm for feminism – the highly technical field of conflict of laws. Using the non-intuitive hypothetical of a dispute in California between a Japanese father and daughter over a transfer of shares, we demonstrate the contribution that conflicts can make. Whereas Western feminists are often criticized for dwelling on “exotic” cultural practices to the neglect of other important issues affecting the lives of women in those communities or states, our choice of hypothetical not only joins the correctives, but also shows how economic issues, in fact, take us back to the same impasse. Even mundane issues of corporate law prove to be dazzlingly indeterminate and complex in their feminist and cultural dimensions.

What makes conflict of laws a better way to recognize and do justice to the different dimensions of our hypothetical, surprisingly, is viewing conflicts as technique. More generally, conflicts can offer a new approach to the feminism/culture debate – if we treat its technicalities not as mere means to an end but as an intellectual style. Trading the big picture typical of public law for the specificity and constraints of technical form provides a promising style of capturing, revealing and ultimately taking a stand on the complexities confronting feminists as multiculturalism is challenged here and abroad.

The paper is forthcoming is the Stanford Law Review.