The Diffusion of Rights: From Law on the Books to Organizational Rights Practices


  • We wish to thank first the participants in this study. Thanks also to Samuel Bagenstos, Lauren Edelman, Chuck Epp, Bob Kagan, Mark Kessler, and Susan Silbey for their comments during various stages of this project. We gratefully acknowledge the thoughtful comments on previous drafts from participants in the 2004 and 2005 conferences of the Western Political Science Association, the 2005 conference of the American Political Science Association, and the 2005 Syracuse University Law and Politics Seminar. Further thanks are owed to the anonymous reviewers and editors at Law & Society Review, whose insightful feedback stimulated our thinking. Finally, we thank the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for its generous financial support through its Scholar in Health Policy Research Program.

Please address correspondence to Jeb Barnes, Department of Political Science, University of Southern California, Von KleinSmid Center 327, Los Angeles, CA 90089-0044; e-mail:; and Thomas F. Burke, Department of Political Science, Wellesley College, 106 Central Street, Wellesley, MA 02481; e-mail:


How does law change society? To gain new leverage on this long-standing question, this article draws on two lines of research that often ignore each other: political science research on the mobilization of law, and sociological research on the diffusion of organizational practices. Our insights stem from six case studies of diverse organizations' responses to the accommodation provisions in the Americans with Disabilities Act and related state laws. We found that different modes of exposure to the law combined with organizational attributes to produce distinct “rights practices”—styles of standard operating procedures and informal routines that reflect the understanding of legal requirements within an organization. The diversity of the organizational responses challenges simple dichotomies between compliance/noncompliance, change through deterrence/change through norms, and mobilization/nonmobilization, and it underscores the importance of combining political science and sociological perspectives on law and social change.