The sociology of law can be described both as a branch of sociology and a sub-branch of legal studies. It is broadly concerned with the foundations of law and its role in the organization of society; the pattern of legal change and the part law plays in fulfilling social needs and aspirations. In short, it is the study of law and its relationship with society.
Studies of legal sociology can be traced back to the 19th century and early scholars in the field of sociology. These include, notably, Herbert Spencer (1820 to 1903,) William Graham Sumner (1840 to 1910,) Emile Durkheim (1858 to 1917) and Max Weber (1864 to 1920.) The subject received greater attention following World War II in the light of the changes that emerged in society, such as the rise of the welfare state. In the 21st century, the trend for researchers has tended towards the morality of law.
The sociology of law assumes that legal institutions are influenced by social factors that exist around them. It also concludes that the reverse is true. Research has focused on disparate areas of law and also crosses into other disciplines such as criminology, political science and psychology. Much of the research has concentrated on Western systems.
On the whole, intellectual efforts in this field have been devoted to four areas: legal history, known as historicism, instrumentalism, anti-formalism and pluralism. Historicism looks at the law and legal procedures in the context of social forces that impact on their development. It focuses on the origins of legal ideas and patterns of legal evolution; in particular the reasoning behind a law or legal concept and any trends that may occur as a result of contemporary issues.
Instrumentalism deals with the impact of law on society. For example, what the law is and what it actually does. This is an important area of research because it emphasizes the inter-relationship between society and law, encouraging the revision of law in the face of changing social circumstances. It has the potential to advance civic participation in law and acknowledges law as an instrument used to maintain public order and settle disputes, among its other functions.
Anti-formalism looks at the law as a whole, rather than as an isolated system. Research in this area questions the importance of legal norms and particularly calls into question their effectiveness. It is especially concerned with the disparity between what is intended by law and what the policymakers originally envisaged. Anti-formalism is critical of the unrealistic nature of legal rules and the abstract nature of law.
The pluralism approach to socio-legal research asserts that law is located within society, meaning that it is not officially an agency of government. A famous proponent of this theory was Austrian legal scholar Eugen Ehrlich (1862 to 1922). Ehrlich argued that the law is inherent in social custom and organization.
Legal sociology studies the law from the top-down and bottom-up perspectives. The top-down angle looks at the impact on law of the attitudes and concepts of legal officials and administrators. The bottom-up perspective takes into account sociological differences that may affect the way the system works. For example, how different social conditions affect the way the law is applied.
Another aspect of research covers the legitimacy of law. This overlaps with political and social history and explores the assumption that the power exerted by the law is enacted on legitimate grounds. It also looks at the legitimacy of public officials and how they came to gain public support of their authority. It asserts that the exercise of power must be justified.
The evolution of law is a vast field that emphasizes the changes that occur within the law, as well as how they may weaken or strengthen it. One example that causes concern and debate relates to the police force. Increasingly, in carrying out their duties, police officers must have greater awareness of the legal rights of the citizen. There is much legislation around police powers and rulings that affect the search, arrest and detention of a subject. The pre-occupation with equality under the law has in many ways made the enforcement of law more difficult.