Sociology & the Law Research Paper Starter

Sociology & the Law

(Research Starters)

This article examines the study of the sociology of law and how law impacts various subareas of sociology. A range of subareas of sociology that are most likely to be affected by laws is provided. The impact of law on marriage and various family issues including divorce, marriage rights, and abortion are discussed. Areas of sociology that will be increasingly affected by laws in the future are examined including environmental sociology and public health sociology.

Keywords: Environmental Law; Family Law; Formal Law; International Law; Problem Solving Courts; Public Health Law; Rule of Law; Social Problems


Societies have had laws for thousands of years and many of the concepts of law from the earliest civilizations, including those of the Roman Empire, have influenced the evolution of modern law (Ehrlich, 1922; Radin, 1925). Modern civil societies live under the rule of law, in which laws are publically disclosed and equally applied. The laws set the limits of the government's power as well as the responsibilities of the government to protect the rights of citizens (Manne, 1997; Jayakumar, 2009). Thus, in a civil society the government's power should be limited by the requirements necessary to maintain order while protecting individual rights (Sysoyeva, 2009).

One of the key functions of formal law is to help maintain the status quo in a society. One of the key functions of the law making process in democratic societies is to evolve and adapt the law based on democratic principles (Itzkowitz, 1988). In the 21st century, the relationship between law and sociology is constantly expanding. Law in most industrial nations is pervasive with virtually every aspect of society and human relationships governed by some form of law or government regulation whether constitutional, civil, criminal, or commercial. Economic globalization is in turn being met with an increasingly complex set of international laws and relationships between the legal systems of trading partners and financial centers.


As modern law became more pervasive, aspects of social life and the law became more interactive. Laws influence behavior and regulate activity, and in democratic states those groups or classes impacted by laws can, in turn, influence the scope and intent of the law (Sunstein, 2007).

The study of the sociology of law and the relationship between law and society in sociological theory dates back to the works of Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and Talcott Parsons. Now, the study of the sociology of law which focuses on the relationship between law and society is pursued around the world. The study of law and crime has long been of interest to sociologists and has been the subject of a large body of research and theory development. The interaction between law and society means that most things that sociologists study are impacted by some type of law. Those sociological subject areas which are most likely to be impacted by laws include:

  • Organizations,
  • Industry,
  • Science,
  • Politics,
  • Behavior,

• Groups,

  • Social organization,
  • Occupations,
  • Urban environments,
  • Medical,
  • Marriage and family,

• Aging,

  • Crime, and

• Race.

There are numerous categories of law in civil societies which apply to the entire gamut of human activity and correspond to a wide range of individual and group behavior. Laws apply to all social institutions, markets, industries, groups, and the lives of individuals. They govern individual, group, and organizational behavior and can impact the nature of economic, political, and social networks (Mohr & White, 2008). As time goes by this becomes more complicated; in the late 1900s and early 2000s there has been a huge increase in the volume of legislation that creates or amends laws (Toulson, 2006).

In totalitarian societies as well as those societies that are dominated by religious beliefs there are also a wide range of laws governing the personal and public lives of individuals as well as economic and political activities. In these societies, however, there is far less influence by the citizenry on the laws that are established (Lubonja, 2001; Davis & Robinson, 2006). The long list of specializations within legal practice helps to illustrate how pervasive law is in society and the various areas in which sociologists will encounter law as a factor of human behavior.

In the United Sates, the legal profession is also stratified in ways other than by specialization. Graduates of top law schools most often end up working for large and sometimes national or global law firms. Graduates from local law schools, or those serving a state or urban area, most often end up working in smaller firms focusing on localized or personal issues (Jonakait, 2007).

The U.S. Court System

The structure of the court system in the United States is a factor in how the justice system is administered. There are multiple court systems in the United States as well as numerous specialized courts. The Federal court system deals with cases involving Federal law while state, county, and municipal courts deal with cases involving laws established and administered by those levels of government. In addition to divisions by levels of law, courts are also specialized by types of law and cases that they adjudicate. Family law, which comprises a large percentage of cases at the local level, has a specialized family court in many jurisdictions. A similar structure exists for dealing with legal matters regarding child welfare and juvenile crimes. There are also international courts and tribunals that address a wide range of general legal issues as well as special circumstances such as war crimes that occur around the world (Pellet, 2008).

During the last two decades some specialized courts have become focused on problem solving when dealing with social problems such as substance abuse, domestic violence, or family problems. These courts show a high level of collaboration with social service agencies and mental health care providers to address widespread problems in society (Coulter, & et al., 2005; Mirchandani, 2008; Wolf, 2008).


Areas of Sociological Study Impacted by Law

In several areas of sociological study the impact of law can substantially change the lives of participating research subjects. As sociology focuses on the study of people and their relationships, it is inevitable that modern law will impact these relationships (Fairchild, 1932). However, the role of sociology in examining institutions, laws, or social programs and to what extent practitioners should be actively involved in the change process remains controversial (Grasmick, et al., 1983; Neeley, 2008).


An example of a field of study where laws have significantly impacted the lives of study participants is the study of aging in society. The lives of the aging people in most industrial societies are greatly changed by public laws and the assistance programs that those laws create or govern. In addition, the study of aging in society has produced a wide range of results that drive advocacy and influence legislation (Doron & Hoffman, 2005). As a result of such research, numerous laws at the federal level and state level have been amended to assure protection of older people in matters of health, finance, and level of care when it is needed (Arnason, et al., 2001).


The long standing field of the study of marriage and family covers a social institution that has been reshaped by laws and caused the lives of individuals to be greatly affected by them. The so-called traditional view of the family structure consists of a husband, a wife, and their biological children; this has historically been a dominant family structure across races and cultures within the United States. Informal arrangements of a similar structure have been recognized as common-law marriages by most states (Joslin, 2009). As of October of 2013 there are fourteen US states that grant and recognize same-sex marriage: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington, in addition to the District of Columbia.

There are numerous federal laws which impact families, some of which are within the federal court's jurisdiction. However, the United States Supreme Court still holds that laws that cover domestic relations should be set by state legislatures. (Elrod, 2009; Moloney, 2009).

Through the 1900s, there was considerable social change in the American family, some of which was enabled or driven by legislation such as women's suffrage and Roe v. Wade. As women's rights became legally recognized, the distribution of wealth in the country also changed and the economic status of women was improved (Weisberg, 1975; Joslin, 2009). The law has also controlled or granted, the freedom of women to choose or not choose motherhood and the law has governed the methods they have available for birth control. Abortion has been an issue in the United States since the mid-twentieth century, which has helped to shape perspectives toward sexuality, marriage, family, politics, economics, individual freedom, the role of the state, and the significance of religious beliefs (Tamney, et al., 1992; Kelley, et al., 1993).

The law has also attempted to maintain control over who can be married. The same-sex marriage movement and the social controversy over controlling the definition of marriage and family has become a heated controversy. Restricting marriage rights and legislating who can marry controls the legal and economic protection of marriage, which is at the center of the controversy ("Same-sex," 1996; Knauff, 2006). Activists and advocates for and against same-sex marriage have taken their fight to the media, town hall, stockholder meetings, the courts, and the polling place. There has been a great deal at stake for both sides. Those in favor have sought legal status, social recognition, financial benefits, and emotional security. Those opposed to same-sex marriage have fought for a traditional, heterosexually-oriented definition of marriage and family, sexuality, and social stability to be maintained (Shepard, 2007; Dickens, et al., 2009). The debate is far from over.

The conflict of same-sex marriage is deeply rooted in beliefs, mores, and norms. Societies and laws have been slow to change in accepting homosexuality (Mercier, 2008). This was also the circumstance in interracial relations and interracial marriages for over one hundred years (Novkov, 2008). Change, however, has come and there is a greater acceptance of gays and lesbians in many countries.


The law also controls how people can end their marriages through divorce. California was a leader in establishing the concept of "no fault" divorce, which allows couples to dissolve their marriage based on irreconcilable differences without proof of fault or misdeed by either party. Most other states have enacted similar laws but the controversy over the effectiveness or positive or negative impact of the laws is still debated (Joslin, 2009). Divorce impacts couples, children, and extended families, and can bring a variety of problems for the participants. Some still blame divorce for moral decay, social disorder, and the destruction of family values (Adams & Coltrane, 2007).

The demographics of the United States have certainly changed and many of the arguments about divorce may not be keeping up with changing times. Divorce rates are down significantly and cohabiting has become more widespread ("The State of Divorce," 2007). In addition, trends in divorce have also shifted and couples are getting divorced at a later age, which can have a significant impact on the quality of life for older women (Wilson, 2008).



Law and social life including marriage and family as well as a wide range of social topics will remain intertwined and hold significance for the sociological researcher. This makes the future of sociology and the law inseparable. New areas of sociological study such as environmental sociology and public health have been experiencing new rounds of legislation which affect the fields every year. These areas and their legal aspects are inseparable and high on the agenda of social, political, and economic activities of the 21st century.

Environmental Sociology

Early inclusion of environmental concepts and concerns in sociology can be found in the work of Emile Durkhiem, Karl Marx, and later Patrick Geddes. As with law, societies, groups, and individuals have a constant relationship with the environment and nature. This is true regardless of how immediate or pervasive the relationship may feel to an individual or to what extent group dynamics are influenced by the environment or attitudes towards the environment (Canan, 1996).

Environmental trends such as pollution and global warming are putting public health at risk and could undermine the economic sustainability of numerous countries. This is a global issue with which all societies are confronted and all governments will need to create new laws or amend old laws in order to address it (Haluza-Delay & Davidson, 2008). The growing number of laws and regulating agencies around the world has made environmental management both logistically and legally complex. Trans-border environmental issues are also a growing concern and treaties as well as international laws are beginning to work toward solutions (Tseming & Percival, 2009).

Sociology, as well as other social sciences, will have a difficult time avoiding studying how environmental issues are impacting their realms of study (Catton & Dunlap, 1978). The law will drive environmental change, making environmental-related law a key concern across disciplines...

(The entire section is 6225 words.)