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Roger Cotterrell, Professor of Legal Theory at Queen Mary, University of London, UK, provides today’s guest blog. He is the author of Law, Culture and Society: Legal Ideas in the Mirror of Social Theory — an Editor’s Choice title in our Law list. The following post includes background information about the book and his research motivations, thoughts, and experiences that helped shape the volume’s success and contribution to the field.
Law, Culture and Society originated in a series of essays written over an eight year period. But it was intended as far more than just a collection of linked papers. I saw all of the studies that contributed to it as part of a single, tightly integrated project, even if one with several branches. I wanted to show through this book what I had come to see as a necessary new perspective on the study of law in society. Since I had long been interested in legal theory and committed to studying law from a sociological perspective, the book was a kind of first summation of what I had gradually worked out as the most productive way to apply this sociological outlook in a theoretically consistent way in interpreting legal ideas. So, it was subtitled ‘legal ideas in the mirror of social theory’. As in much of my work, a guiding motivation was to show the relevance of sociological insights for juristic, doctrinal studies of law – the kinds of studies with which lawyers and law students are most familiar.
Looking back now, a decade after the book’s original publication, I can see two factors as especially important in determining the form that Law, Culture and Society took. The first was that in the years leading up to its publication I had become increasingly interested in comparative legal studies – an area of legal scholarship that throughout its development has been more open than most to making alliances with the social sciences. The strong links I had developed with comparative lawyers encouraged me to consider more carefully how sociological perspectives could aid them, and to ask how the whole enterprise of comparative law could acquire more solid theoretical foundations by drawing on ideas from social theory. So, the book was written partly to address students of comparative law.
It seemed obvious that comparative legal studies would become more important in a globalising world. Pressures to harmonise law across national boundaries were becoming more intense. But at the same time ‘local’ cultures – often reflecting particular traditions, values and allegiances – clearly sought to resist some of these harmonising pressures and called on law to express their distinctiveness. There seemed to be a dual movement focused on law: it must seek the efficiency of similarity produced through harmonisation but it must also appreciate cultural difference. As a consequence, ‘culture’ would have to become a very important focus of attention for legal scholars.
Sociology and anthropology had already developed many ideas about the nature of culture that deserved attention. However, when I came to examine carefully the ideas about ‘legal culture’ that were current in socio-legal studies I felt they lacked rigour. So an important part of my project, reflected in Law, Culture and Society, was to find a way of thinking about culture that could be conceptually defensible, consistent and systematic, and practically relevant for legal analysis as well as for social scientific inquiries about law.
A second main factor also shaped the book’s form. I had come to feel that the old agenda of socio-legal studies – to study the interaction between ‘law’ and ‘society’ – was becoming exhausted. Socio-legal scholars had tended to treat ‘society’ as referring to national societies and ‘law’ as the law of nation states. But social research showed that social and economic relationships were increasingly transnational and international, and law in practice was less and less confined to national law. Law, Culture and Society introduces and develops the idea of communal networks that can cross nation state boundaries, and it suggests that different kinds of communal relationship typically pose different legal problems and present different regulatory needs. Equally, the diversity of communal networks within national societies is a matter of great juristic relevance. So, the book tries to displace the old fixation with national societies as law’s sole concern in favour of a much more open view of communal networks – national, intra-national and transnational.
I had not been thinking of culture when I first wrote about communal networks. However, I came to think that culture could be best understood in terms of them. It could be seen as the bonds that allow these various networks to exist. So, the book’s approach was intended to suggest new agendas for social study of law. I used it to reconsider the possibilities for ‘transplanting’ law from one cultural environment to another, as well as the nature of authority in comparative law, and the multifaceted character of culture as a concern for law. More broadly, I claimed that the law-and-community approach could help to clarify one of the most basic foci of legal analysis – the idea of responsibility.
Since the book appeared I have further developed its approach, which has also been used by other scholars working in diverse fields. Today we can at least see clearly that social studies of law are becoming ever more important and that their character is changing as law becomes more transnational and international, and as networks of socio-economic relations become ever more varied, diverse and intricate within and across national boundaries. Socio-legal researchers and socially-aware lawyers surely have plenty of work to do and I hope that Law, Culture and Society can still prove helpful.
June 22nd 2015
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