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Redirecting Social Studies of Law

NCJ Number
Law and Society Review Volume: 14 Issue: 3 Dated: (Spring 1980) Pages: 805-829
R L Abel
Date Published
25 pages
The general direction of the social studies of law is critiqued under the topics of legal institutions, the functions of law, and the values served by law.
Under the topic of legal institutions, the social study directions examined relate to the legal profession, courts, the U.S. Supreme Court, juries, extrajudicial dispute processing, and administrative agencies. Social studies bearing upon the functions of law in society are reviewed under criminal law and civil law. Social studies dealing with law and ultimate values are explored under the issues of equality and legitimacy. The cumulative effect of the various social study directions has been to define the central questions for sociolegal studies as 'effectiveness' and 'justice.' Although these are the appropriate issues, studies have generally formulated them in the wrong ways. Effectiveness has been construed in a narrowly instrumental fashion as an examination of whether the declared goals of a law or legal institution (usually one that is new or reformed) have been attained. Since declared goals are never attained, studies should focus more realistically on the inadvertent consequences or symbolic meanings of legal institutions and laws, the costs, the person for whom laws work, and the fundamental structural reasons why they do not work. Justice has been correctly identified with equality, but the objects of scrutiny, highly visible official processes, are too limited. The focus should be expanded to include low-visibility behavior, such as facilitative uses of law, and the contribution of the legal system to the maintenance of substantive inequalities in the larger society should be analyzed. References and notes are not included.


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