Sociology of law, in a nutshell, is an interdisciplinary approach to studying law in society. It borrows from a number of disciplines, from social theory to history.
At the heart of it is the epistemology that law is a social construct and, thus, ought to be studied empirically. Over the last three to four decades, kindled by the forces of rapid globalisation, sociology of law has broadened its scope.
Today, this field of study no more remains a sub-discipline of sociology but has become a fascinating interface of law, humanities and social science.
Yet the question persists, why must a law student engage with sociology of law? The simple answer is that since law tangibly affects the society, it is only fair that it be studied in context, not in isolation.
Often it ends up being the case that Justicia’s blindfold signifies more than the apparent impartiality of law; at times, there is little difference between the blindfold and a myopic approach to law, both in the profession and academic discipline.
Studying sociology of law gives us a profound insight into the actual workings of law. For instance, Marx, though he never himself developed a fleshed-out theory of law, placed it in the superstructure. As such, he argued that law is indeed a result of the friction between material forces, that the economic base acts upon law and moulds it in the process.
Later developments in the tradition have studied law as a distinct social relation, and how it is inherently political and ideological in nature. Whatever the flaws of the Marxist theory of law might be, it is undeniably imbued with a strong sense of social justice. I can only be hopeful that law students will be mindful of all that the Marxist theory warns us against.
That the power relations dictating the construct and workings of law would constantly, and rightly, bother the conscientious practitioners, and that they would positively reach out to the downtrodden. Be it legal aid, be it a push for stronger labour laws.
Durkheim attributed the increasing abstraction of law to the breakdown of collective conscience as a society moves from mechanical to organic solidarity. He proposed that law has no morality of its own. If that so is the case, how worthy is that law which ever so slightly fails to enshrine the justice motive?
Weber was particularly interested in contemplating the professionalisation of law in light of formal rationalisation of society. A nuanced understanding of how the profession has morphed over time is essential for aspiring lawyers, lest they find themselves trapped in the echo chamber even before they could possibly realise.
After all, the school of Critical Legal Studies—a movement best known for its critique of how law plays out in reality—was initially fuelled by people from within the discipline itself. The idea is to exhort an eclectic, open-minded approach in the formative stages of the law school itself, so that later it will bear much riper fruits.
For a fresher or a second-year law student who has just begun with family law, understanding the displacement of traditional law in India during the early colonial period is a crucial precursor to ably comprehend the cryptic and formidable corpus of personal laws.
That what we today know as personal law is a devious and distinctive colonial creation might for good reasons escape even the most curious of all minds. Especially considering how it appears to diligently refer to ancient texts and seamless customs all the time.
All in all, sociology of law is all about honing one’s ‘sociological imagination’, as C. Wright Mill would have it. It is about going deeper than what appears on the surface.
It is about letting the black-letter law be to itself for once, then delving into how and why it came into being and for whose interests; pondering what are its implications for the society; all that, only to return to the black-letter law and behold it from a different perspective altogether.
Think of a courtroom scene. Is the outcome merely a factor of the law as it is in the books? Is the whole process not a performance? From the lawyers’ oration to the poised, unbiased figure of the judge. From the witnesses’ testimonies to the courtroom architecture which visibly points towards the sources of authority in there. Is the whole process nothing but a re-enactment of the entire fact scenario?
When we as law students begin thinking about law not just as law, we will have received a proper conditioning of what we call as sociology of law.