The rules we live by


  • Maya Vachkova University of Exeter


marginalization; face-veil ban; legal systems; social systems; identity



This paper explores the role of the law in marginalization and identity formation. The focus of the study is Bulgaria and its 2016 legislation prohibiting the face-veil. My discussions of the ban with Muslim participants revealed four perspectives on it, and these are related to each other systemically: they are connected in a marginalization dynamic. However, evidence from the reflections of my participants suggests that these perspectives and the marginalization dynamic did not exist (at least in this systemically-interrelated form) prior to the face veil ban. A ban on identity expression is, of course, a legal act. Thus, we need to theorize the systemic process by which identity-regulating legislation is produced, bringing about or intensifying marginalization. As an example of this process, I discuss the rise to prominence of a nationalist party in Bulgaria, whose key members lobbied for the ban and subsequently gained electoral support to institutionalize it.


I aim to move the debate about theories of identity beyond the micro-level of social groups by situating the individual in a social system where the State has the legitimacy to reinforce some moral interpretations and simultaneously undermine others via use of the law. I aim to remedy the disconnect between institutional communications and the people who produce them by bringing in the human experience of legislation against the backdrop of identity.


In theorizing the relationship between identity formation and the law, I argue that the discipline of anthropology has plenty to offer the formation of a systemic perspective on identity and its regulation. This regulation is enacted by a State that tends to moralise social issues, especially those that are perceived as dangerous. I draw upon Mary Douglas’s theory of risk, as well as her ideas on institutional design and the interactions between individuals and the State. The early ideas of Douglas informed Midgley’s systemic theory of marginalization, and I believe that her later works can enhance this marginalization theory by situating marginalization processes in relation to an institutional and legal context.