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In their practical day-to-day activities, lawyers and citizens take, and must take, much for granted, both about society in which they work and live and about its legal order. Lawyers practice within established legal systems, with more or less settled institutions, techniques, traditions and rules. Citizens live, and the laws operate, in societies in which specific social arrangements, structures, roles, expectations and conceptions of what is possible and what is right, are widely held and shape our views about law and about society. Customarily, most of us think within these categories and arrangements, rather than about them.

Theoretical investigation of those arrangements and understandings has to do with what underlies them. It is concerned to look beneath what we take for granted, to see what accounts for it, what its nature is, how it works and how it changes. Social theory is concerned to ask such questions about societies in which people live. Investigations about theories of law and society will lead us beyond our original and usually quite unreflectiveviews of what is important in law, what functions itplays, what it is for, whose interests it serves and how it serves them, what causes legal change and how important law is in society. In probing these questions we might come to confirm, modify or abandon our original assumptions; we will always, however, find these assumptions are more problematic, controversial and puzzling than they appeared at first to be.


This course is designed to introduce students to theoretical issues concerning the intricate and complex relationships between law and society. It seeks to do this by acquainting them with several important ways of approaching these issues, and with the sorts of questions best (and worst) addressed by each of these approaches.

The course materials are composed of two interlocking parts, each of which seeks to introduce students to a distinct range of questions—and a distinct way of asking such questions—about socio-legal relations.


Part 1—Law and Modernity: Classical Social Theory on Law in Modern Society


Classical social theory was born in nineteenth century Europe, that is, at a time and in a place which was undergoing massive and unprecedented social, economic, scientific and intellectual change. The early social theories differed markedly from each other, but they agreed upon one thing: the modern west was developing in ways and at a pace which were unprecedented in European history, and unparalleled anywhere else in this world. This so-called “great transformation” formed the context and topic of classical social theory. It prompted questions which had not been considered as urgently or directly before.

Among these are large questions about how people can and should be expected to behave, how increasingly large and complex societies “hang together”; and what differentiates one form of society and legal order from another. Typically the law presupposes that it has the answers to such questions. But in fact these questions have a form and structure that are not amenable to traditional legal analysis: a fact which renders lawyers, who are exercising their own specialised techniques, not especially expert in answering them. Listed immediately below are some of the questions that engaged the attention of the classic founders of modern social theory and which will be covered in the course.





1. What social functions do legal systems in general play, and what functions do specific types of legal systems play?


2. Is law necessary (or even beneficial) for orderly social life, or is it better to dispense with it?


3. What are the major influences on the nature of the law and legal systems and on change in them—economic, political or internal legal imperatives; the inte

Faculty Faculty of Law
Study Level


Offering Terms

Term 1, Term 2, Term 3



Indicative contact hours


Course Outline

To access course outline, please visit:


Pre-2019 Handbook Editions

Access past handbook editions (2018 and prior)

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