What is Socio-Legal Studies Now?
Being forever curious about history, but coming to Socio-Legal Studies from the very presentist social sciences, I have been intrigued by the origins and sources of Socio-Legal Studies as a field. Knowing its past, I naively trust, can inform where we think it is going. But who’s to say it is going anywhere? Socio-Legal Studies today can seem like an amorphous blob, a loosely congealed collection of scholars who self-select into a global project that has no boundaries and few gatekeepers. A single narrative isn’t possible, if it ever was. At best, it is a story of intersections and pathways, allowing scholars to ask innumerable questions and take many disciplinary approaches.
In historical perspective, some intersections do stand out. For one, both American and Scandinavian legal realism of the early 20th century elevated the desire to escape abstract logic and metaphysical philosophy, and instead to ground the project of social reform on more applied social sciences. When Law and Society took shape in mid-century, the growing umbrella field featured a continuing demand that law confront the empirical reality of how it works. Never far from all of these projects was a political one: a belief by many or even most scholars that empirically-driven scholarship about law would support progressive social reforms. That hope was undermined by later developments: from the right, by the Law and Economics movement that saw social science as a tool to promote a different set of values, including efficiency and deregulation; and from the left, by critical approaches – Critical Legal Studies and Critical Race Theory as foremost strands – that questioned the faith in social science and the incremental social reform mentality that seemed a sop that had little impact on the fundamental injustices of the legal order.
Correlated with the more diverse political vision of the Socio-Legal ‘project’, much of the field’s agenda setting can be described as an effort to explore the periphery of the legal field rather than its supposed centre. These expeditions have explored law’s participants, from lawyers to administrative officials to litigants; its informal rather than the formal processes, favouring negotiations rather than the rarer adjudication; and its pluralities rather than singular expression, where we find competing cultures and consciousnesses. The field has become more geographically expansive than ever, too.
In the face of this splintering, I have wondered to what extent contemporary Socio-Legal scholars see themselves as part of an activist tradition. The resistance for the past century has often been black letter legalism, which has discouraged empirical work, especially of a reform-minded vein. While Socio-Legal scholarship has broken through in many places, the price of flourishing social scientific inquiry may be a thinning of its collective identity and shared vocabularies. The inexorable rise of specialisation has accompanied the growth of the interdisciplinary field, such that many scholars now bring Socio-Legal questions and methods to specific policy fields, such as family, regulatory, environmental, or human rights law. Others, including the more procedurally-minded, may focus their reformist energies—the same that drove the Legal Realists—to flourishing lines of empirically-informed inquiry into tort reform, civil justice, or the legal profession. Research networks have grown up around many narrower interests. Perhaps the absence of a common tradition is the cost of being able to say ‘we’re all Socio-Legal now’.
The ubiquity of Socio-Legal inquiries renders law nearly infinitely plastic. What started in Legal Realism’s goal of a new science of law lives on as the struggle to redefine and reimagine the forms, roles, and consequences of law. For our predecessors at the cusp of the twentieth century, nothing could be derived by natural law, legal logic, or otherwise. Now that critical approaches have blossomed under the Socio-Legal umbrella, the rejection of law as an autonomous field—universal in its command, untethered to society, derived by reason—seems to me the minimum point of consensus in the Socio-Legal approach. That’s not to say that law doesn’t have power in the world, through its rhetoric, forms, and norms. That’s why I still begin many of my classes for undergraduates by asking them to puzzle over a quote by Denis Galligan, former director of the Centre, when he wrote: ‘Anyone entering into the study of law in society faces the dilemma of either not taking law seriously enough or taking it too seriously’ (p.4). I would add that not only should we not take law too seriously as an empirical matter; I am sceptical of anyone who prescriptively desires for law to again be taken more seriously—the ‘majesty of the law’, etc. etc. Yes, the law can be a powerful tool as a system and instrument, but that’s all the more reason to respect the critical approach that Socio-Legal Studies can provide.
What can Socio-Legal Studies be, if it must ‘be’ anything? My hope for my students today is to be able to work within a space that Socio-Legal Studies has created, a space in which law finds an improved democratic potential. Socio-Legal Studies hasn’t deconstructed law for deconstruction’s sake. The democratic potential is the capacity of a society, by stripping away mystification and law’s veneers, to hold an on-going conversation about its values and direction. This is a tall order at present where I live, but I hope that ‘being Socio-Legal’ means signing on to a project that makes people the core, not the periphery, and where codes and constitutions are the consequence rather than the cause of people choosing how to live their lives together.