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Social Science


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Sociology of Law

Law/Society: Origins, Interactions, and Change by John Sutton (Sociology for a New Century: Pine Forge) aims to familiarize students with the foundational issues, debates, and literatures in the sociology of law. It is written for students who have some background in the social sciences‑students in upper­-division courses and graduate seminars‑but it assumes no prior knowl­edge of the substantive area of law. From Preface:

A distinguishing feature of Law/Societyis that it offers an explicitly analytical perspective on the topic. This means that it poses a series of puzzles‑How does law change? What makes law more or less effective in solving social problems? What do lawyers do?‑and exposes students to the sociological procedures that can be used to find solutions. Rather than presenting a series of "just so" stories that must be passively absorbed, I present the sociology of law as an active explanatory project in which stu­dents themselves can engage. Several specific features of the book contrib­ute to this analytical perspective:

The introductory chapter contrasts normative and sociological perspectives on law and presents a brief primer on the logic of research and inference as it is applied to law‑related issues.

Theories of legal change are discussed within a common concep­tual framework that highlights the explanatory strengths and weaknesses of different arguments.

Discussions of "law in action" are explicitly comparative, apply­ing a consistent model to explain the variable outcomes of civil rights legislation.

The narrative in the latter parts of the book is interspersed with empirical illustrations in the form of graphs and tables, encourag­ing students to engage issues in a hands‑on way.


The sociology of law is a rich and unruly topic, and it is never easy to say what it includes and what it doesn't. What is foundational is in part a matter of taste, but I think it is also a matter of experience. This book is informed by my own intellectual biography and research interests, but it grows more directly from my 15 years of teaching the sociology of law to undergraduate and graduate students. In my teaching, and in the chapters that follow, I have tried to focus on matters that seem to me to be generic to the field‑that is, issues that have preoccupied sociologists of law at formative stages in the field's history, that continue to resonate in contemporary debates, and that most effectively stimulate students to think about law in new ways. Foundations give us something to build on; they are not the whole building.

This book is organized around four topics:

What Is the Sociology of Law?

Chapter 1 attempts to characterize the sociology of law as a research enterprise that is distinct from jurisprudence and many other forms of writing about law. The main thrust of the chapter is to challenge students' often taken‑for‑granted assumptions about the autonomy of law. It describes a variety of topics and issues that are of special interest to social scientists, draws contrasts between sociological and juristic perspectives on law, and suggests ways in which law and other social institutions interpenetrate each other.

Legal Change

Chapters 2 through 4 survey Durkheimian, Marxian, and Weberian theories of how legal systems change in response to other broad‑scale social transformations. The goals of these chapters are to present a more comprehensive survey of these "classical" theories than has been available from any other single source, to offer a framework that allows students to compare their arguments in a systematic way, and to suggest the implications of these theories for contemporary debates about the character and fate of Western law. Thus, although I do not explicitly discuss contemporary theoretical movements (e.g., poststructuralism in its many forms, semiotics, critical legal studies, critical race theory, feminist theory, and neoinstitutionalism), these chapters lay an important foundation for advanced study along these lines.

Chapter 5 is a transitional chapter that describes how American sociologic thinkers attempted to rework European themes and adapt them to the evolving context of American society. Legal change was only a secondary concern of these scholars; they were more centrally concerned with understanding how law was more or less effective in achieving desired policy goals. Discussion of their preoccupation with the problematic relationship between "law in the books" and "law in action" sets the stage for the two chapters that follow.

Legal Action

Chapters 6 and 7 examine mid‑twentieth‑century American civil rights reforms as laboratories of law in action. Focusing on the examples of voting rights, school desegregation, and equal employment opportunity/affirmative action (EEO/AA) law, the question is simply, What made these legal initiatives more or less successful in reducing discrimination? Again, the orientation of these chapters is analytical, not just descriptive. This is stressed in two ways. First, I encourage students to think carefully about what we mean by "effectiveness": What kinds of measures do we use to assess constraints imposed on minority voters, the degree to which schools are segregated, and the impact of race and gender discrimination in the workplace? Second, the narrative places these reforms in a comparative framework that allows students to assess systematically how various factors have influenced the effectiveness of these laws. By moving from the relatively simple case of voting rights to the increasingly complex (and, arguably, less successful) cases of school desegregation and EEO/ AA law, the analysis builds toward a coherent set of generalizations.

The Legal Profession

The professionalization of law is an issue that is central to a general understanding of legal development. It is also likely to be of considerable interest to students regardless of whether they are planning on a legal career. Chapter 8 begins by outlining a sociological perspective on professionalization as a political project, then proceeds to place the American legal profession in this broader conceptual context. The issue here is how and to what degree the profession has managed to control growth, competition, and the conditions of legal work since its inception in the late nineteenth century. Again, the presentation of graphic and tabular data encourages students to engage the information in analytical terms.

Chapter 9 brings the discussion up to date by describing recent transformations in the conditions of legal work-­globalization, the numerical growth of the profession, the influx of women lawyers, and "mega-lawyering"‑and the impact of these trends on stratification within the profession.

My personal goals in writing this book are simple but ambitious. I hope to communicate to students my own enthusiasm for studying the social aspects of law, to convince them that law is a pervasive aspect of the social world they experience every day, and to provide them with some of the tools they need to satisfy their ongoing curiosity about the role of law in social life. I owe a number of debts to people who have helped to make this a better book. I have learned a great deal from colleagues about the goals they set and the problems they encounter in teaching the sociology of law. I have learned even more from my students, who have suffered bravely through several versions of this brief curriculum and often gave me unvarnished feedback. Law/Society reflects much that they have taught me about their understanding of law and about learning in general.

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