Law in Society

Considering law in society means asking a number of questions: What does law do? Where does it come from? What forms does it take? How do we understand its meaning and significance? Socio-legal scholars discuss the role of law in providing stability to private relations, law as the foundation of social order, and law as an instrument for directing society and solving social issues. They also investigate the social origins of different laws. Anthropologists may be more interested in the forms that law takes, and matters of meaning and symbolism. Asking these questions ultimately leads scholars to address the issue (whether explicitly or implicitly) of what law is. Using empirical studies as the basis for such enquiries is what largely distinguishes these projects from those of legal philosophers.

The first part of the course (4 weeks in MT) introduces some of the main sociological thinkers to have addressed these questions, including Durkheim (the notion of law as a mirror of social life and the basis of social solidarity), Weber (law as an instrument of the ruler), as well as Hart (and what he calls ’descriptiveliving sociology’). We will use case studies, along with the writings of more recent scholars, to assess the relevance of their approaches for contemporary scholarship and social issues.

The second part of the course (8 weeks in HT) uses anthropological and historical case studies to address the same questions. The focus is largely on understanding the different systems of law found in other societies and historical periods. How are we to approach the laws and legal processes of non-literate societies, for example, or the codes of medieval European kings, or the feuding relations of contemporary Tibetan pastoralists? What do they mean and do, and where do they come from? On what grounds can we even define them as ‘law’? We also consider contemporary studies on the western world, including research on court use, the appeal of human rights, and new forms of transnational law. The diversity of such cases challenges us to ask what unites them as examples of law. Studying what is unfamiliar can help us to reflect on the parameters and cultural specificity of our own concepts of law, and students will be encouraged to think constructively and critically about familiar legal phenomena and their universal application.

Learning outcomes: a conceptual understanding of the role law plays within society and its relations with other aspects of society (attained through study of the relevant scholarship in this area); and an understanding of how these issues play out in a variety of societal contexts.