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Learning Objectives 207

Reciprocity between Law and Social Change 208

Social Changes as Causes of Legal Changes 210

Law as an Instrument of Social Change 212

Indirect and Direct Effects of Law on Social Change 214

Additional Considerations Regarding Law’s Effect on Social Change 214

The Efficacy of Law as an Instrument of Social Change 216

Advantages of Law in Creating Social Change 217

Legitimate Authority 218

The Binding Force of Law 219

Sanctions 220

Limitations of Law in Creating Social Change 221

Elites and Conflicting Interests 222

Law as Only One of Many Policy Instruments 223

Morality and Values 224

Resistance to Change 225

Social Factors 225

Psychological Factors 227

Cultural Factors 229

Economic Factors 230

Summary 231

Key Terms 232

Suggested Readings 232

References 232


  • Explain what is meant by the reciprocal relationship between law and social change
  • Distinguish between the direct and indirect effects of law on social change
  • Describe an example of the limited efficacy of law in achieving social change
  • Define rational-legal authority
  • Explain why law can often possess binding force for social change
  • Describe any three factors that reduce the ability of law to produce social change

For quite some time now, law and society theorists have examined the relationship between legal and social change in the context of development of legal institutions (Anleu, 2009). These theorists, some of whom were discussed in Chapter 2, viewed law as both an independent and a dependent variable in society and emphasized the interdependence of the law with other social systems. In light of the theoretical concerns raised earlier in the book, this chapter will further examine the interplay between law and social change. The law will again be considered as both a dependent and an independent variable—that is, as both an effect and a cause of social change. The chapter will also analyze the advantages and the limitations of the law as an instrument of social change and will discuss a series of social, psychological, cultural, and economic factors that have an influence on the efficacy of law as an agent of change.

The initial step in understanding the relationship between law and social change is conceptual. What is social change? The term change, in everyday usage, is often used loosely to refer to something that exists that did not exist previously, or to the demise or absence of something that formerly existed. But not all change is social change. Many changes in life are small enough to be dismissed as trivial, although at times they may add up to something more substantial and consequential. In its most concrete sense, social change means that large numbers of people are engaging in group activities and relationships that are different from those in which they or their parents engaged in previously. Society is a complex network of patterns of relationships in which all the members participate in varying degrees. These relationships change and behavior changes at the same time. Individuals face new situations to which they must respond. These situations reflect factors such as new technologies; new ways of making a living, changes in place of residence; and innovations, new ideas, and new social values. Thus, social change means modifications in the way people work, rear a family, educate their children, govern themselves, and seek ultimate meaning in life. It also refers to a restructuring of the basic ways people in a society relate to each other with regard to government, economics, education, religion, family life, recreation, language, and other activities (Vago, 2004).

Social change is a product of a multitude of factors and, in many cases, the interrelationships among them. In addition to law and legal cultures, there are many other mechanisms of change, such as technology, ideology, competition, conflict, political and economic factors, and structural strains (McMichael, 2017). All the mechanisms are related in many ways. One should be very careful not to assign undue weight to any one of these “causes” in isolation. Admittedly, it is always tempting and convenient to single out one “prime mover”—one factor, one cause, or one explanation—and use it for a number of situations. This is also the case with legal change: It is extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, to set forth a simple cause-and-effect relationship in the creation of new laws, administrative rulings, or judicial decisions. Although there are exceptions, as will be alluded to in this chapter, one should be somewhat skeptical and cautious concerning one- factor causal explanations in general and in particular about such explanations for large- scale social changes.

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