Monday, September 10, 2007

Precis of the Day: Strength of a Weak Agency: Enforcement of Title VII


Pedriana, Nicholas and Stryker, Robin (2004) “The Strength of a Weak Agency: Enforcement of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Expansion of State Capacity, 1965-1971”, American Journal of Sociology, 709-760.


This article analyzes the anomalous case of early Title VII enforcement to challenge the standard political-institutional (PI) account of state capacity. Title VII prohibited employment discrimination, but the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was granted scant enforcement resources. Yet the early EEOC aggressively enforced and developed Title VII. To solve the anomaly, the authors integrate insights from the literatures on social movements and the sociology of law. In the absence of conventional administrative resources, apparently weak state agencies can expand their capacity through the legal strategy of broad statutory construction. This strategy is more likely with the presence of social movement pressure from below. The authors argue that state capacity is a "moving target," with state and societal actors building on legal as well as administrative resources to construct and transform capacity. By reconceptualizing state capacity, the authors contribute to nuanced explanations of state policy that are both "political" and "institutional" and that highlight the centrality of legal interpretation and judicial review to political sociology.


Using the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) as an illustrative example, this article makes the argument that an administrative agency with (extremely) low political-institutional (PI) capital, such as the EEOC during the 1965-1971, may mitigate the effects of a low PI score through such extra-administrative (e.g. legal) tools as broad statutory construction. However, the efficacy of broad statutory interpretation to expand administrative powers, or “state capacity” may be broadened or constrained by the courts or legislature depending on the given historical or political context.

If an agency succeeds in enlarging its power through the legal tool of broad statutory interpretation, then the courts’ may expand or retrench this depending on the current political and historical context, and the article illustrates this through such examples as the court’s broad, purposive construction of the term “discrimination” or moving from an “intent-based” view of discrimination to an “effects-based” view which allowed greater reforms of past and present discrimination. Thus, one must think of state capital not as a collection of static indicators of administrative power such as money, power, or organization, but rather as a moving target, growing stronger in some periods while being retrenched in others.

Methods, Findings

“Strategic Narrative”: Stryker and Pedriana use theoretically framed questions, concepts, and mechanisms to help select historical happenings for further interpretation and explanation, focusing on both the contextual and sequential aspects of time. In other words, a qualitative approach that examines the cases and primary and secondary sources (EEOC guidelines, law review articles, legislative history) within its historical context, comparing certain periods to others in terms of agency strength and efficacy of the legal strategy of broad statutory construction.


I loved, loved this article. Fascinating study of the EEOC from a sociology of law perspective. I recently took Statutory Interpretation, using the Eskridge/Frickey casebook--the first chapter of which covers the history of Title VII from a legal historical perspective. This sociology of law angle is most valuable for examining the EEOC’s strength as an institutional actor among others, and how the judiciary used the legal tool of statutory construction to broaden the EEOC’s ability to redress employment discrimination patterns during a period when it lacked prosecutorial power, funding, or coherent organization. I had never really thought about the EEOC’s pre-1972 limited powers or the usefulness of statutory construction for expanding administrative agency before reading this article. It's an interesting thing to think about.

Rating: ***** Excellent.


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