Symposium: Sociology of Law by Deflem

Reviews by Matthew Silberman, Debarun Majumdar, and Stephen Morewitz.
Response by Mathieu Deflem.

This is an online copy of a print publication in Pro Bono, the newsletter of the SSSP Law & Society Division, 16(1), Spring 2010. Also available as pdf file.

Cite as: Symposium: Sociology of Law: Visions of a Scholarly Tradition, by Mathieu Deflem. Pro Bono, the newsletter of the SSSP Law & Society Division, 16(1), Spring 2010.

Review by Matthew Silberman, Bucknell University

Revised version of presentation at SSSP Annual Meeting, San Francisco, August 2009.

Deflem presents a comprehensive review of the field, its historical roots, current theoretical trends, and major research initiatives. While modestly claiming not to cover everything, as far as this reader could tell, no major endeavor has been omit-ted.

Deflem demonstrates how powerful the influences of Weber and Durkheim have been on the evolution of the theoretical foundation of the sociology of law as a discipline. This is an important point as Deflem notes the marginality of the discipline in relation to sociology as a whole, largely because of guilt by association [my term] with criminal justice, criminology as state policy, and the power of the legal profession itself to define the discipline. Deflem credits Talcott Parsons with developing a distinctive theoretical approach to the sociology of law derived from the classical traditions of Weberian [organizational] and Durkheimian [integrative] perspectives.

Not ignoring the influence of Marxian doctrine, Deflem notes that Karl Marx himself had little to say about law as part of the superstructure of society. He does note, however, that critical legal studies [CLS] and conflict theoretical approaches, Marxian and non-Marxian, played an important role in shaping theoretical and empirical work in the post-Parsonian era of the late 1960s and 1970s. Chambliss‘ seminal work on the history of vagrancy law was a critical turning point in the development of critical/conflict approaches to the sociology of law. Deflem describes the work of European scholars such as Petrazycki, Bourdieu, and Habermas who have had a great influence on sociolegal scholarship in Europe, but little direct impact on American sociology of law.

The second half of the book highlights major empirical and theoretical developments in contemporary studies of legal institutions. The influence of Parsons on Deflem‘s work is evident in the way he organizes his chapters on the sociological dimensions of law: concerning law and economics (the regulation of the market), law and politics (the role of democratic law), law and social integration (the legal profession), and law and culture. Deflem discusses the important role that neo-institutionalism as neo-Weberian organizational theory has played in understanding the diffusion of legal culture in large-scale organizations and examining the role of legal developments on organizational life. Current work on emerging markets has benefitted greatly from this work. Citing Habermas, Deflem notes that modern legal institutions re-quire popular legitimation in order to be recognized as valid among the subjects of law.‖ Reviewing the literature on the historical evolution of the legal profession from Roman times to the present, Deflem discusses the role of education, expertise, and organization on the role of the profession in meeting the needs of modern industrial societies. The discussion of law and values centers on the problem of diversity of values in contemporary society. Coupled with the increasing decentralization of social control and growing individualism, the integrative function of law becomes essential to the regulation and coordination of society. Modernity [secularization] conflicts with traditionalism in religious values, religions conflict with one another, and personal autonomy conflicts with the collective good.

The final two chapters focus on special problems associated with the study of legality: social control and the role of law enforcement and the globalization of the rule of law. Deflem discusses both the techniques of surveillance and punishment in contemporary society that widen the net of social control both objectively and subjectively (transforming the self in Foucault‘s terms). On the other hand, while nation-states vary in the extent to which they respond to concerns for human rights, the moral leadership that universal standards pro-vide has begun to diffuse on a global level.

Review by Debarun Majumdar, Texas State University-San Marcos

Revised version of presentation at SSSP Annual Meeting, San Francisco, August 2009.

Sociology of law is an integral part of the field of sociology; yet there is a lack of complete understanding of the relevance of this area to sociology and how it differs from the study of law and legal systems per se. In chapter 1, the author brings up a very interesting point that works of important sociologists, such as Tonnies, Simmel have been somewhat overlooked compared to those of Weber and Durkheim, yet we don‘t see much of an elaboration of the contribution of these more obscure sociologists in the book. At the very outset, the author points out to the different receptions that Weber and Durkheim have received regarding their relevance to the sociology of law. This is a key point, however it left me asking for more elaboration. The author mentions that Weber has received more prominence because he was consistently and expertly involved in the study of law,‖ whereas to Durkheim the proper contours of the sociological study of society were more important. Weber relied more on the interpretative aspect of investigating behavior, and Durkheim relied on un-covering causations employing structural-level analysis of social data. These two scholars, thus, had different methodological approaches to understanding the society, and it is not therefore surprising that they varied in their levels of appeal to sociologists. Additionally, whether or not their works appealed differently because of their difference in focus is another issue that needs further investigation. Durkheim‘s emphasis on cultural differences, and Weber‘s emphasis on broader political, economic, and cultural factors could also be reasons why these two theorists had different followings. Al-though the author covers these interesting points, perhaps a little more elaboration is suggested. The author does a very good job while discussing the transition from the sociology of jurisprudence to the sociology of law and the need for the separation from the study of law as we know it today and the sociology of law- where the interpretation of law is approached from sociological perspectives.

That understanding of laws and legal systems cannot occur in a vacuum and that without couching them in the societal context would result in a failure in understanding the ramifications of laws have been properly emphasized in the book.

The chapter on the development of the Parsonian perspective and the emergence of sociology of law in the US has been deftly handled by the author. The author clearly describes how Parson‘s systems theory explains societal cohesion from a functionalist approach, despite increasing individualism in the US. However, how does this relate to the development of the sociology of law? The society comprises of inter-related parts that are integrated, and yet have different functions. What mechanisms keep these different societal parts integrated? One of the mechanisms according to Parson‘s is the legal system. According to Parsons, law is any relatively formalized and integrated body of rules which imposes obligations which imposes obligations on persons playing particular roles in particular collectiveness. Thus, laws provide the integrative element in a society that comprises of different autonomous systems with different functions. The author effectively brings out these points and, again effectively de-scribes how economic and political systems can be differentiated or kept autonomous from legal systems a and how societal systems are where a robust linkage can be found between laws and the community.

The social control aspect of laws and how that assists in the functioning of society is also an important element that has been brought out by the author. I feel, that the author, in the early chapters, have clearly established the importance and significance of the area of sociology of law. Sociologists, whose interests lie in other areas, such demography, social psychology, will gain an extensive view to what sociology of law is about and the uniqueness of this area in the early chapters of the book.

The section on the sociological dimensions of law is a critical aspect of the book which contributes to the understanding of the field of sociology of law. In the vein of Parsons, the book focuses on economy, politics, normative integration, and culture. Of particular interest were the chapters on the law and integration and law and culture. I felt it was important to indicate the autonomy of this field that emanated from the Weberian perspective of professionalization of legal activities and the Parsonian perspective of integrative function of the law.

Additionally, the movement away from a strict structural functionalist perspective to one that accommodated diverse ideas was also an important development that was highlighted in the book. This diversification led to the development of Critical Legal Studies as a field is an important step that can be seen as progress and not something that is counterproductive. In the chapter on Law and Culture, the analogy provided while outlining the shortcomings of contemporary sociology of law and that of cartography is definitely worth mentioning. Portuguese sociologist de Sousa Santos critiqued maps and applied the same criticisms to the current state of the sociology of law field. The main gist of the criticisms is the oversimplification of laws and the legal systems and the assumption that the legal systems work typically at a state level. This ignores the complexity and the layers because this approach ignores the national and international nuances and differences. The author provides an example of how these levels could be inter-related: the suppression of a strike in a factory may violate local labor rules, national labor laws, as well as international legal codes on employment. The author also delves into the inequalities faced by different groups in the society due to various laws, although the intended purpose of law is integration; which is indeed a paradoxical situation. This is exemplified in the lack of marital rights for same-sex couples, and the continuing debate over abortion in the US.

Overall, I think that the book gives a very comprehensive view of Sociology of Law. It also addresses how important sociology of law is integral to the discipline of sociology and should not be sidelined. It is especially important because as our society diversifies and as we make progress, law and legal systems should have an integrative goal rather than exclusionary aspects in them.

Review by Stephen Morewitz, Stephen J. Morewitz, Ph.D. & Associates

Revised version of presentation at SSSP Annual Meeting, San Francisco, August 2009.

Mathieu Deflem‘s Sociology of Law. Visions of a Scholarly Tradition is an excellent analysis of the contributions of Weber, Durkheim, and other scholars to to sociology of law. Sociology of Law is especially useful to scholars and students of the sociology of law, criminology, complex organizations, the sociology of the professions, and social and political theory.

I found the book especially useful for a variety of courses, such as the sociology of the professions, complex organizations, criminology, victimology, criminal justice, social psychology, and other courses that cover theory-related issues and for the development of research in these fields. For example, Mathieu notes on page 137 that ethnomethodologists do not contribute to the development of sociology of law. Scholars and researchers can explore the nature of ethnomethodology and determine if future research might benefit from the in-sights of specialty area.

Mathieu‘s analysis stimulates the reader to explore the implications of the sociology of law. For example, on page 141, he discusses crime as rational choice. I wonder to what extent is crime a rational choice or is it mainly in response to broader non-rational social and cultural factors.

In his analysis of the institutionalist perspective on page 153, the author notes that organizations rely on rational myths that may not be inherently accurate but that are effective because they are widely shared. I wonder if these rational myths are widely shared and if they are even inherently inaccurate. Organizational researchers should pursue these questions using theoretical and empirical approaches.

In Chapter 9, he notes that the professionalization of the legal occupation leads to a monopolization of all legal activity, including legal scholarship. I am not sure how much professionalization actually creates monopolization because of governmental restrictions and other external factors.

In his discussion of sociology of law and the antinomies of modern thought, Deflem indicates how criminology has benefited from behaviorist theorists. I would like to see more work that emphasizes the non-rational components of criminology and the sociology of law.

Deflem analyzed the concept of social control in Chapter 11 and raises the issue of whether the use of the death penalty and kangaroo courts represent Durkheim‘s notion of mechanical solidarity. It is interesting to view the sociology of law in terms of the transition from mechanical to organic solidarity and the persistence of mechanical solidarity in democratic societies.

Author‘s Response: Writing the Sociology of Law

by Mathieu Deflem, University of South Carolina

Writing a book is one thing; having it read quite another. And having my published work thoughtfully reviewed is beyond my expectations. For this reason alone, I am indebted to Matthew Silberman, Debarun Majumdar, and Stephen Morewitz for having done such an admirable job of commenting on my book. I am, of course, also grateful to Michael Smyth for organizing this symposium on my work and to Cary Federman who organized the author-meets-critics session at the SSSP annual meeting in San Francisco upon which this symposium is based. In these brief comments, which cannot do full justice to some of the remarks my book has spawned, I will focus on some of the themes my work sought to address and, relatedly, discuss the published book reviews that have in the meantime appeared.

Collectively, my commentators focus on several strengths and weaknesses of my work, though I was pleased to note the former are more numerous than the latter. Surely, some points in the book could have been elaborated upon or should have been better explained, an inevitable shortcoming of a book that seeks to cover a vast terrain, both temporally/intellectually (from the classics until today) and thematically (across a range of substantive interests in the sociology of law). Besides provoking a series of questions that beg for more analysis and research, it is interesting to note the observed focus on disciplinarity and inter-disciplinarity, which is indeed at the heart of my book. Briefly, my argument is not only that the sociology of law must always be, and cannot but be, a specialty in the larger discipline of sociology, but additionally that it is only as such, by delineating the proper contours of sociology and other relevant disciplines, that inter-disciplinary bridges can be built. Additionally, as the reviewers note, theoretical insights on the objectives of sociology (of law) as well as findings and accomplishments in research are to be addressed, especially in the present global age, through a dialogue that involves, minimally, the European and American roots and branches in the development of the sociology of law. Moreover, although such an enterprise is obviously beyond any one author, this debate needs to be broadened to include other academic voices from across the globe as well.

As the reviewers astutely observe, my work has theoretically profited from the classical scholars, including Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and Talcott Parsons. To somehow forget these roots or to seek to push them aside is in my view as shortsighted as it would be intellectually devastating towards building a veritable sociology of law. In fact, whatever the merits and limitations of the specific contributions of classical (and important modern) scholarship, it is the general analytical orientation towards the study of society that must remain to move and inspire us in our academic activities. For that reason, also, my book addressed the theoretical pluralism of today‘s sociology as an (historical, if not always systematically justified) outcome of the classical tradition. Therefore, the obscurantism of postmodernism, for example, did not lead me to ignore the contributions of this perspective in the sociology of law (and in socio-legal studies), although I could do so only only in an appropriately nebulous narrative style.

It is entirely correct, as the reviewers do, to conceive of my work in terms of its role in seeking to identify the intellectual identity of the sociology of law and its practitioners and to outline its usefulness for our teaching of this sociological specialty. For that reason also, my book is accompanied by a website with overviews of the book‘s chapter and related online available readings ( In this connection, I should stress once again that my book is not a textbook, for which reason the work nearly did not see the light of day, as the original editor assigned to this work once had different ideas (Deflem 2010). But apparently I am not always entirely inapt at the art of persuasion.

Finally, in view of the central ambitions of my book, I find it amusing as well as somewhat puzzling to note that the published reviews of my book squarely fall in two camps based on the academic background of the reviewer: legal scholars do not (completely) like this book (Del Mar 2008; Tamanaha 2009), sociologists do (almost completely) like this book (Federman 2009; Light 2008). Nothing could make me happier, at least not with respect to the reception of my book.


Deflem, Mathieu. 2010. Prologue to the Chinese edition of Sociology of Law. Peking University Press. English version available via:

Del Mar, Maksymilian. 2008. Review of 'Sociology of Law‘ by Mathieu Deflem. Cambridge Law Journal 67(3):660-662.

Federman, Cary. 2009. Review of 'Sociology of Law‘ by Mathieu Deflem. Contemporary Sociology 38(3):269-270.

Light, Matthew. 2008. Review of 'Sociology of Law‘ by Mathieu Deflem. Canadian Journal of Sociology 33(3):10141015.

Tamanaha, Brian Z. 2009. Review of 'Sociology of Law‘ by Mathieu Deflem. American Journal of Sociology 115(3):975-977..

Please cite as: Cite as: Symposium: Sociology of Law: Visions of a Scholarly Tradition, by Mathieu Deflem. Pro Bono, the newsletter of the SSSP Law & Society Division, 16(1), Spring 2010.

See webpage on the book, Sociology of Law.