Uses and abuses of socio-legal studies
Many scholars have developed maps of impact and periodization of ideas and eras in the last 50 years of the socio-legal field. More recently, other fields (e.g., behavioral economics) have both used and co-opted basic concepts and studies of the older socio-legal field (e.g., group behavior in corporate governance and social influences in decision making). Yet, judges, legal policy makers and other actors in legal institutions continue to make, interpret, enforce and evaluate laws, often with empirical claims of validity or prediction, without actually referring to verifiable data or empirically valid patterns of social data. This chapter reviews, through both my own socio-legal work and that of other scholars, the uses and abuses of (or failure to use) socio-legal research (both empirical and conceptual) in law (doctrine, policy and theory). This essay describes the field’s and my own “origin” stories, rooted in key socio-legal ideas of law in social context, legal realism, legal pluralism, legal movements and institutions, “gaps” in the law on the books versus the law in action, law and culture, legal theory, ideology and the role of law in social change. I then review some examples of “good” uses of socio-legal studies methods and theories (e.g., robust concepts and research findings on legal process, decision making, enforcement of law and social control, and cultural meanings of law for lay people, as well as professionals), as well as some examples of misuses (or lack of use) of rigorous socio-legal studies. I conclude with some observations about why socio-legal studies remains somewhat marginalized in legal decision making (different “standards of proof” in different disciplines) and legal study generally (at both educational and research levels).