Chapter 12 Sociology of the legal system
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This chapter considers the possibility for sociologically informed research into law, using the idea of law operating as a system. Within sociological theory there is an approach that makes the notion of system central to the observation of society and thus law within society: systems theory, as developed in the middle of the 20th century by Talcott Parsons, extended by Jürgen Habermas and radically reformulated in the second half of that century by Niklas Luhmann. Law, within this strand of sociological theory, is one of society’s sub-systems. In presenting these different versions of systems theory, we pay particular attention to the manner in which each of them identifies law operating as a system. We contrast the approaches adopted by Parsons and Habermas, with that of Luhmann. The former two attribute integrative functions to institutions commonly accepted, rather than theoretically defined, to constitute ‘the legal system’. Whilst Luhmann proceeds on the basis that the legal system is one of society’s separate and autonomous social systems, offering both a theoretical basis for its existence in this form, and a theoretical basis for its observation. Towards the end of the chapter we also examine the potential of complexity theory, which is not a sociological theory as such, but a version of general systems theory developed within the physical sciences, to inform socio-legal research.

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