Are the Dutch complacent compliers? The interplay between COVID-19 regulations and the sociolegal domain

Are the Dutch complacent compliers? The interplay between COVID-19 regulations and the sociolegal domain

Compliance has been key in stopping the spread of COVID-19, but there is a fine line between compliance and complacency. If this line becomes blurred, what are the implications beyond the scope of the pandemic?

For more than a year now, people from all corners of the globe have set aside many of their creature comforts and daily routines to adhere to COVID-19 regulations. Life quickly turned cyclical: (1) wait patiently; (2) listen to rule and regulation updates; (3) adapt behaviour and actions to match said rules and regulations. The last phase of the cycle has arguably been the most crucial and hinges on widespread compliance. However, a distinction can be made between compliance and complacency, and this extends further than the pandemic. While our present situation certainly calls for rule-following, what happens if the nuance begins to fade when considering fundamental principles like the rule of law and our constitutional rights? Here, we argue that viewing these issues through a sociolegal lens is not only logical, but also imperative.

The authors co-teach the course the Sociology of Law. As an obligatory course for second-year Criminology bachelor students, as well as a university-wide elective option, the Sociology of Law attracts a wide range of students from different faculties. In what is, perhaps, a sign of the times, a record number of 190 students enrolled last semester. Although a large and diverse group, the students find common ground in their keen interest in how law and society interact. As an assignment, the students interviewed someone in their vicinity about compliance with COVID-19 regulations and analysed these interviews against the backdrop of a lecture on law in the everyday and Valerie Braithwaite’s (2003) article on motivational postures. The assignment was created and graded by the working group tutor.

Of course, the 190 interviews do not form a representative sample. At the same time, the sample is not unique nor an aberrant outlier. An educated guess offers that students at the oldest law school in the Netherlands will, in some capacity, go on to become formative contributors to the governance of our society. Therefore, we treat the analysis here as a searchlight, through which we consider the issues that arose in the analysis. The analysis addresses theoretical issues of trust in government and compliance, which, while theoretical in nature, are relevant to our everyday reality.

The working group tutor, Julia Rootenberg, first triggered our attention to the results of the interview assignment. Born and raised in New York City, Julia marvelled at the ‘complacent compliance’ that appeared throughout the interviews. This compliance was coupled with what seemed to be genuine trust in Dutch institutions such as the Tweede Kamer (House of Representatives), the RIVM (National Institute for Public Health and the Environment), and the police – all of which have played both an individual and collective role in handling the COVID-19 crisis. Indeed, the interviews presented a widespread doxal belief that the government has its citizens best interest at heart (Bourdieu, 1977). It was this recurring sentiment – that the Dutch government is generally a force for good – which surprised Julia most. Any discussion of flaws and failures, she noted, was an anomaly. Over the past year, questions concerning government responsiveness and efficacy have taken centre stage. However, public attitudes are not globally uniform. In sharp contrast to what we saw in the assignment interviews, Pew Research Center (2020) reported that just 20 percent of US adults said they trusted the federal government to ‘do the right thing just about always or most of the time’.

In widening the scope beyond the American or Dutch case, the inherent fault line on trust in government is one we have encountered in the international courses offered by the Van Vollenhoven Institute time and time again. This is meaningful on two levels: the trust itself and the fact that it is doxal. The doxal aspect explains the shock that occurs when the government does not act in the best interest of its citizens. Here, the recent Dutch childcare benefits scandal (Toeslagenaffaire), comes to mind and the resounding outrage that followed. This observation leads to questions that lie at the core of the Law & Society scholarship (as studying rule compliance and trust in government are central topics to the field), questions such as: do the Dutch sport a different brand of complacency? If so, where does this stem from? How do complacency and trust differ if factors like race, gender, and class are considered?

Gaining insight into these questions is, or at least should be, of key importance to government. We know that law and society are mutually influential: law both shapes and is shaped by the society it serves. Therefore, the assumption that government can be trusted, and citizens cannot, leads to an entirely different legal regime than the assumption that government cannot be trusted, but (most) citizens can. In other words, this is not merely about complacent compliance regarding specific and, hopefully, temporary measures (like we’ve seen with COVID-19). This is also about complacency with basic principles such as the rule of law, the shield function of criminal law, and constitutional rights.

In certain political spheres, a rhetoric seems to exist which relegates sociolegal research to a lesser status; simply, some do not see the value it contributes. However, there is a clear and increasing interest in the sociolegal domain, especially among the students at our own faculty. Law & Society scholarship is indeed a powerful tool that can help us gain insight into the dynamics of ‘complacent compliance,’ as well as how the law and legal institutions function at the microlevel: in the everyday lives of people. A better understanding of this will, in the long run, lead to more informed decisions on how rules can (but also in many instances cannot) contribute to changing or affecting human behaviour. The results of the Sociology of Law interview assignment provided a peek into this world, a world which both employs and benefits from the sociolegal approach.


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