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The (not so common) place of law: An inquiry into who and what makes Law and Society scholarship

by Liora Israel and Heinz Klug

Law and Society scholarship has over the past 50 years drawn on many disciplines, from within the social sciences, humanities, law, health sciences and other professional disciplines. While socio-legal studies can learn from closer contact with these disciplines and its research can illuminate some of their core concerns, communication between socio-legal studies and other disciplines is imperfect. The work of socio-legal studies scholars is not always well known or understood in the disciplines it draws on and socio-legal scholars are not always aware of relevant developments in other areas. This provocation calls on socio-legal scholars to look at ways to close this gap by building interdisciplinary bridges. What disciplines do we have strong ties to, and which do we not? Has this changed over time? Should we try to change these trends? Are there opportunities for dialogue between leaders of other disciplines and socio-legal scholars to identify key contributions socio-legal studies have made to component disciplines? Should we be exploring or making efforts to better translate socio-legal research for other scholars?

Initially, the Law and Society tradition emerged in the mid-60s from the fruitful encounter between mainly two disciplines, sociology and law, in the American context. As an interdisciplinary enterprise, it soon borrowed on other social science traditions, including anthropology, linguistics, social psychology, philosophy, political science etc. In addition, the law and society movement was also confronted by other interdisciplinary programs that developed in parallel, some focused on the law, such as the law and economics movement or along other, mainly critical lines (critical race theory, gender studies, subaltern studies, etc.). The critical legal studies project shared both aspects and developed a peculiar relationship to the law and society movement, of mutual criticism and interest.

If we consider the canon of law and society literature, as evidenced in a number of anthologies and publications, it is noteworthy that a number of trends were shared with other social sciences during this period: the linguistic turn, the cultural turn, the tension/articulation between structure and agency, or the influence of Foucault, to cite a few. As such, law and society literature and community may be considered as a full component of social sciences. Nevertheless, at least two elements posit the specificity of the Law and Society Association. First, its relation to law, defined as both a “subject” of enquiry, and a discipline in which the law and society literature itself is both a component and a challenge. This ambivalence is reflected notably by the institutional positions of its membership, in and out of law schools. Second, its relation to the other social sciences: is the law and society literature a sub-discipline specialized on the “juridical field,” to quote Bourdieu, or should it be considered as a new paradigm or tradition?

These various elements characterize in part the complex relationship between law and society and its component disciplines. Moreover, the peculiar dimension of law, as its central object, certainly renders it more difficult than in other social sciences to make it appear relevant to study societies characterized by what is often called a different “legal culture”. Part of our reflection should then include how the legal terrain itself makes the exchange between international scholars more multifaceted or difficult than in other social traditions, be it in relation to the specificity of each legal system, or to the ways legal academics build their legitimacy on a situated knowledge within each country or legal system.

These preliminary assessments lead to three sets of questions or challenges:

First, how might we map law and society literature and the ways in which the community has been transformed in the wake of the recent history of the various disciplines it is composed of (in terms of trends, methods, authors etc.)? We might focus the discussion here on the “critical” dimensions (critical legal studies, critical race theory, etc.) as well as on the growing influence of the humanities.

Second, (and a more crucial) dimension would be to assess how and if the social sciences have been impacted by the law and society literature. It is not so evident, and it would be great to invite some sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists etc. to consider this issue, for example, in what respect – if any – the cause lawyering paradigm has impacted or might impact the sociology of professions? We suspect that the impact of Law and Society scholarship may, could and should be more important for others fields of knowledge. We should discuss this idea theoretically as well as institutionally.

A third dimension might be to develop a new perspective on the relationship to law, as both a component discipline and a subject of enquiry. In this regard, international comparison is crucial, as well as the comparison with other fields of research based on law: law & economics, law & history, but also legal anthropology or philosophy of law to quote a few. In what ways have those communities and literatures shared common trends or diverged from Law and Society over the last 50 years: what can we learn from their history, their literature, their scholarly recognition. Is there anything common in terms of epistemology between those scholarships which have referred to law in different ways – what types of relations, tensions and alliances exist between them and law as a discipline and a practice? 

Finally, is there more law or more of the social in socio-legal studies? If so, in what sense? How shall we discuss, challenge and renew the relationship between these two terms for the next 50 years?

What then is to be done about building closer relations between the component disciplines of Law and Society? The following suggestions are made to provoke discussion:

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