Vol. 11 No. 3 (March 2001) pp. 131-135.
LIVING WITHOUT LAW: AN ETHNOGRAPHY OF QUAKER DECISION-MAKING, DISPUTE AVOIDANCE AND DISPUTE RESOLUTION by
Anthony Bradney and Fiona Cownie. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing 2000. 187 pp. Cloth $69.95.
Reviewed by Candace McCoy, School of Criminal Justice, Rutgers University - Newark.
One way to judge the success of a work of legal anthropology is to assess whether it has successfully explored
and explained the phenomenon it set out to explore and explain. Using this standard, it is difficult to determine
whether this book is a convincing success or a silly failure. As its title advertises, it sets out to observe and
interpret the process by which members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) deal with disputes. The authors
find, however, that there is not much to study because it turns out that Quakers have exceedingly few disputes.
Perhaps this means that the study was silly and all the verbiage leading up to its finding, which is discussed
only in the final chapter in a page or two, is simply transcription of field notes that march on to a thoroughly
On the whole, however, I prefer the "convincing success" scenario, although the work does have some weaknesses.
Its central concerns are
important in the literature on disputing: how can different legal orders co-exist? What can the example of tight-knit
communities of faith tell us about
the opportunities for understanding human conflict and legal order? What methods best prevent disputes so we don't
even have to resolve them? Who are
the Quakers, anyway?
Although the latter was not stated as a research issue, the study gives its most satisfying answer to that last
question or "query," as Quakers would say by using somewhat arcane words that the authors believe constitute
a "language" with particular meanings that Quakers absorb as they live and work in their religious community.
Readers who are interested primarily in the questions of legal pluralism and dispute prevention are advised to
read the first, penultimate, and final chapters - which are very good - and skip the ethnography in between. Readers
who are interested in knowing more about a small but well-established religious tradition and how its Meetings
(not churches) are structured and operate will want to read the middle parts, which describe the historical background
of Quakerism, its primary tenets (called "testimonies," but never, ever "dogma") and how a
contemporary Quaker community works. We learn that Quakerism began in England in the 1620s when charismatic teachers
determined that seekers of Truth did not need priests or churches to tell them how to know God - that, "there
is that of God in
everyone" and a method of silent worship could bring each person into spiritual community with God and other
seekers. The book presents an interesting history of British Quakerism, chronicling the oppression Quakers faced
from orthodox politics and religions. It also discusses the remarkable material success built by these hardworking
and principled people
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who, perhaps paradoxically, strove mightily to achieve simplicity in their lives. There are reasons for all that,
and the authors discuss them quickly but
well. The book then turns to its description of contemporary Quaker structure and an ethnography of one particular
Quakers are solidly middleclass folk living (quietly!) in many cities all around Britain. They are also well-established
in North America and Australia and many parts of Africa and South America, though the authors of this book explicitly
state that their study makes no claims to represent anything other than British practices, and maybe just those
of the particular Meeting under study. As they describe the people who belong to this Meeting, it turns out that
these Quakers are far from the black-hatted oddities who smile benignly from oatmeal boxes. They are theologically
diverse, ranging from agnostics to Christ-centered believers, and a "Zen Quaker" makes an appearance.
They are mostly modern professionals, the most common profession being that of teacher, with a significant smattering
of lawyers and businesspeople. In fact, contemporary Quakers are apt to be professors of law or legal studies,
as one of the book's authors and this reviewer are.
Does this present a problem of objectivity? Fiona Cownie says that her ethnography is both strengthened and flawed
by the fact of her membership in the Society of Friends. On the one hand, she had remarkable access to every meeting
and decision made in the community over a period of five years. She even served as an assistant clerk of the Meeting
under study, a position that is the closest thing to "pastor" or "priest" that Quakers have.
Because they believe each individual can find his or her own way through theological thickets, and must be left
free to do so, Quakers have no clergy. On the other hand, her membership in the Meeting meant that she not only
had "gone native," as anthropologists must avoid, she WAS native from the start. She claims that this
flaw in anthropological method was cured by the fact that her co-author and husband, law professor Anthony Bradney,
is "an atheist who has no desire to join the Quakers" and that he fully participated in analysis of the
data. His presence as an outsider would cure the nativist problem.
Skeptics might not be so sure that the authors were anthropologically accurate, particularly since the conclusions
of the book seem more pleasant than any critical study of disputing is likely to be. The authors conclude that
the Meeting they studied had remarkably few disputes, though various interpersonal abrasions were readily observable.
They attribute this to the unique method of Quaker decision-making that produces consensus, though Quakers themselves
do not call it that. They call it "unity" in understanding "right actions" to be taken when
the Spirit moves you.) It is odd that, after both authors conducted nineteen semi-structured interviews of Quakers
active in the Meeting, reviewed a diary of dozens of committee meetings, and after one participated as a key figure
in the most important
meetings covering interpersonal and Meeting business affairs, there is not a single example of an actual dispute
recounted here in any depth. The authors said they did not recount particular incidents or case studies because
of the need to protect the privacy of Meeting members, but the resultant weakness is sufficiently bothersome as
to call into question the foundation of the argument.
Perhaps this is because there were so few disputes to study, as the authors
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maintain, but at the same time there are no particular examples of how Meeting members took an issue and worked
with it until they successfully reached "the sense of Meeting," either. Instead, the book offers a chapter
on Quaker Decision-Making that describes "The Elements of the Quaker Business Method" and its spiritual
underpinnings - in other words, how the practice is supposed to work, but very little on how it actually did. Another
chapter presents a somewhat sterile description of the structure of the Meeting, again linked to an explanation
of how the congregation conducts its affairs based on community norms of inclusiveness, resistance to central authority,
and belief in self-discipline that will lead to spiritual clarity. This is supposed to be a fieldwork recounting
of the community studied, but it reads
as if it were mostly a rewrite of a Quaker information pamphlet on the various committees of the Meeting and their
functions, plus a quick overview of Quaker ideals from its continually evolving statement of principles, FAITH
AND PRACTICE. The authors' main point is that this unique method of deciding what to do about matters both mundane
and crucial forges nearly air-tight agreement on what the community will do, and that the method slowly "convinces"
dissenters along the way so that at the end there is very little disagreement.
One of the authors, surely Bradney, says that he still finds this method "unfathomably strange." (p.
93) The other, presumably the Quaker Cownie, participated fully in it and apparently thought that describing it
without illustrating it would be sufficient for the rest of us to "get" it. But that is not so. The book
needs to give some illustrations of how the decision-making method and idiosyncratic leadership styles of the Quaker
congregation led to the harmonious state that provides the basis for the book's conclusions. To be fair, I personally
have no doubt that the lack of dispute that the authors describe was in fact evident, and that it emerged
from the often-prolonged method of examining an issue continually in light of spiritual principles until every
member of the community agreed to the wisdom of a particular action (or at least "stood aside," as we
say in the U. S. A.). Basically this is the Quaker way of acquiescing to a decision and agreeing to abide by it
even if one has some reservations or disagreements about it. However, a Quaker book reviewer might not be entirely
objective, either. As I read this book, I recalled several examples of deep disputes in my own Meeting and how
they were submitted to the Quaker business method until the members of Meeting achieved unity of purpose on what
to do about them. Examples ranged from disputes over whether to intervene into the disciplinary practices of a
teacher at the affiliated Quaker elementary school to whether to purchase a piece of real estate. I could have
recounted the saga of each of these deep disagreements without invading the privacy of
individual Meeting members, though it would have been impossible to do so without stating an overview of the disputants'
views that might appear not very flattering to them. The book needed to give such examples in order to prove its
points. Cownie could not do so, probably not solely because of privacy concerns but because of her wish to be non-judgmental
over her fellow Quakers - itself a Friendly attitude that is part of the tolerance Quakers strive to practice.
This book on Quaker decision-making is somewhat frustrating to read, then, because it seems all Quaker and no decision-making.
This might be a metaphor for the entire "Quaker business method" of making decisions. Dispute in the
sense of adversariness or promoting a point of view
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or personal interest does not appear. Chapter 7 opens with a brief discussion of how Quakers aim to make decisions
through a consensus method, presumably
settling real disputes along the way, but the pages that follow are about leadership within the Meeting. It turns
out that leaders of the religious community are so by default, and other members do not see them as such, necessarily.
This is very interesting, but what does it have to do with disputes? Apparently that every member is expected to
search his or her own heart and decide what is the best thing to do, under the religious principles of the Society
of Friends - but here is where the "unfathomable" part comes in. If there are no leaders, and each person
acts on his or her own conscience, we would expect a Hobbesian state of nature to control. Instead, the Friends
follow some internal guide and aim to achieve "unity in Light."
Is this all so mystical as to defy anthropological understanding? No, although the book doesn't really analyze
it deeply, either. The final chapter, all of fourteen pages, draws conclusions about the form and strength of the
decision outcomes, though any explicit comparison of this rather remarkable alternative to most secular models
and how the models coexist is lacking here. Thus, one of the main promises of the introduction goes mostly unfulfilled,
though it can be supplied by readers' inferences. The authors note that decisions are never put to a vote, that
the "sense of the Meeting," as American Quakers call it, must control, and that this consensus model
of decision-making has its own weaknesses and strengths. A major weakness is that it takes a very long time. When
an issue is presented for decision to a
Quaker Meeting, ideas and arguments about it are discussed continually until all can abide by a particular outcome.
Explaining all angles, then retreating to reflect on them, then returning for more discussion -- such is the Quaker
method. It takes forever. It is not a model that most modern businesses could utilize. However, its great strength
is exactly that: once Quakers decide, the decision is rock-solid. When one has wholeheartedly agreed to a decision,
to argue or dispute about it later would be to go against one's own internal resolution of the issue, and in a
Quaker decision everyone has agreed or the decision is not taken.
Perhaps a keener definition of "dispute" would help. Drawing on my own experience with Quaker decision-making
methods, I would say that the authors'
central observation -- that this method means there were no disputes to observe -- is quite misplaced. There is
plenty of disputing in Quaker communities, and it occurs along the way as the decision is made. The unique aspect
of this method of dispute resolution is that it turns to a shared spiritual assumption that divine guidance in
working through the issue is possible, and that this can take as long as necessary until everyone has worked through
every detail and achieved shared agreement. The major impediment to applying this method outside the religious
community is that not everyone in the secular world agrees to turn to an "inner Light" in deciding right
action. Another is, of course, that even if there were such agreement, business decisions cannot take the time
necessary for everyone to
come to agreement. However, perhaps they should, wherever possible - an interesting lesson to be drawn from this
book. I well recall, for example,
the history of faculty hiring in my own university department. For twenty-five years, every hiring decision had
gone to the Dean with a unanimous recommendation of the faculty. Even if many faculty had reservations about a
hire, they bowed to their colleagues. The one
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time that the faculty irrevocably split on its decision and forwarded a recommendation with a minority, dissenting
opinion, the outcome was so contentious as to
permanently alienate colleagues from each other. Had they been able to reach a unanimous decision, the wounding
divisions might have been avoided. In practical terms, lacking consensus, they should have decided not to decide
at all and postponed the decision until a new round of discussion could take place.
A final issue, and the most important to the central concerns of this book, is that this method of decision-making
assumes the willingness to participate in community life so deeply that every decision is thought about in terms
of its spiritual "rightness." Although they said a central question of the book was the concern about
how disputing within a community of faith could co-exist with other forms of disputing the authors do not address
this difficult problem. Is the Quaker emphasis on consensus and community, with its reference to divine guidance,
ultimately narrow and repressive, placing community harmony over individual understanding? Not in the decision
method, since every individual is heard and no decision is made until all agree. But once there is agreement, community
life proceeds with the expectation that its norms will be scrupulously followed without dissent. In the American
scholarly literature, there are published criticisms of Quakerism's "personal perfectionism," an "in-dwelling
law" with no external sanctions if violated, but doubly "rigid" partly because it was so self-righteous
and inward- looking. (Boorstin 1971). Other American legal sociology on Quakerism has concluded that Quaker law
and leadership was historically so strong as to
need no external enforcement, but that ultimately they had to live together with non-Quaker groups who would follow
the Quaker government only if it publicly demonstrated fairness of procedure that was different from the internal
Quaker method. (Offutt 1995 -- see especially Chapter 3 on civil litigation in Quaker colonies.) Ultimately, the
Pennsylvania Quaker colony that Boorstin and Offutt describe was taken over by Franklin's minority Quaker-affiliated
group because the colony's founders had become rigid and unrealistic in their approach to governing non-Quakers
and Quakers alike. (Boorstin 1971)
Overall, though, these objections concern what COULD have been done with the topic and data of this book. What
was in fact done is interesting
and worth reading, though perhaps primarily as an introduction either to Quakers or to their decision-making methods
-- or both.
Boorstin, Daniel, 1971. "The Perils of Indwelling Law," in Robert Paul Wolff,
ed THE RULE OF LAW. New York: Touchstone Books.
Offutt, William M., Jr. 1995. OF GOOD LAWS AND GOOD MEN: LAW AND SOCIETY IN
THE DELAWARE VALLEY 1680-1710. Champaign: University of Illinois Press.
Copyright 2001 by the author, Candace McCoy.