Legal object commentary: anti-slavery medallion


  • Owain Johnstone Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, Oxford


slavery, abolition, human trafficking, social problems, materiality


This anti-slavery medallion was cast in 1787, based on the symbol of the London Society for the  Suppression of the Slave Trade. It was a key object and image within the movement to abolish the slave trade in Britain. The medallion conveys a particular understanding of the slave trade as a social problem (such as assuming the vulnerability and passivity of the slave). Consequently, the medallion speaks to recent literature on the social construction of social problems. That literature, however, has tended to focus on the role of discourse in problem construction – rather than material objects like the medallion. This article interrogates the nature of the medallion as a material problem representation, bringing it into dialogue with discursive representations of a related contemporary issue: human trafficking. The article suggests ways in which the medallion challenges and develops those discursive representations. It concludes that the material dimension of the representation – and construction – of social problems is easily overlooked despite its significance, and that it merits further investigation.