Theoretical Sociolegal Perspectives


Classical Legal Thought, Jurisprudence, Langdell’s Principles, Formal Rationality

Christopher Columbus Langdell (Dean of Harvard Law School)

1870: introduced case method in law school

Law is an exact science, much like physics, zoology, botany and chemistry. No practical experience, but knowledge gained of pure abstract law, particularly by analyzing "case law" of appellate decisions would assure a scientific understanding of law.

Judges have little independence in interpreting rules.

Constitution, statutes, and/or precedents dictate decision-making processes.

Justices should engage in syllogistic reasoning.

Judge has to only look at the facts, decide on the doctrine or principle at play, search for the appropriate rule or precedent(s), and apply it to the case.


Formal rationality

Formally rational: where internal rules are applied to all similarly situated cases in an identical manner. Rules are abstract and general. (Legal brief, consensual contract). Rules are clearly stated and applied to all similarly situated cases in an identical manner. High predictability. Law is rational to the extent that decisions are based on existing, unambiguous rules. Law is formal to the degree that the criteria, the standard used for arriving at a decision is totally internal to the legal system.


Sociological Jurisprudence


Law is seen as based on a general consensus. Law serves to resolve a myriad of social conflicts. Society is essentially harmonious, with law serving to reconcile existing interests (exam on Sundays example). The purpose of law is to maintain and to ensure those values and needs that are essential to social order, not by imposing one group’s will on others but by reconciling and mediating the diverse and conflicting interests of individuals and groups within society.

They are no radicals. They are very conservative.


Roscoe Pound, together with justices Holmes and Cardozo, mounted an attack on legal formalism (formal rationality) (1920’s to 1940’s). They analyze the social effects of law –rather than the rules and doctrines- and advocate that judges should get away from the mechanical application of law and the judge should be given a certain degree of discretion. Legal rules should only be guidelines. Pound’s sociological jurisprudence was hostile to formalism. Interest balancing theory: The law should act so as to assure the maximum amount of fulfillment of interests in a society, by minimizing sacrifices, waste and senseless frictions.

The law should attempt to recognize the maximum amount of interests and allow their fulfillment within the framework of law. Greater weight should be attached to public and social interests over private ones.


Reporter system started to demonstrate that there were many inconsistencies in the law. United States experienced massive immigration, corporate cartelization, economic depression and labor unrest. Natural rights discourse began to lose its legitimating power (difficult to decide between capital and labor).

Holmes “Life of the law has not been logic, it has been experience." Holmes in dissent took the role of judicial self-restraint and said that the political process of legislature should decide the issues.

Cardozo “Sociological method” should be principle tools for judicial practice.

Pound: Without consideration of the context and application of law, any analysis of it, or even lawmaking itself is meaningless. Pound influenced by social control perspective. Heavily influenced by sociologist Ross and philosopher William James. Interested in the results of law and how it affected people.

Two foci:

1.      Refocus law from analyzing legal doctrines to the analysis of social effects.

2.      We should move away from "formal rationality" (legal rules should be "guidelines").

Pound focused on "interests" (individual and social) Interest-balancing by the courts.


Legal Realism

It is a movement, which also attacks legal formalism (formal rationality) (1920’s to 1940’s).

Karl Llewellyn (politically centralist) and Jerome Frank (leftist).


The Realists attacked the notion that law is an exact science. The underlying philosophical assumptions rested on pragmatism, which was hostile to formalism, use of abstractions and exclusive reliance on strict deductive types of reasoning.

Thus, rather than relying on mechanical deductive reasoning from given rules, decision makers should be result oriented, i.e., concerned with probable consequences of their decision (formal rationality vs. substantive rationality).


Rule skepticism: there is a difference between paper rules and real rules. The decision of a case is based more on hunches, feelings, intuition, conviction or unconscious processes –extralegal factors. After the fact justifications or rationalizations can always be based on some theory, doctrine, rule, etc. Conclusions are first made on some extra legal factor and then the judges work backward for its justification. Thus, for Llewellyn it is not the rule of law that is central but the law through men. Jerome stated that the reasoning one finds in court opinions is just window dressing, i.e., formal clothes in which the judges dress up their thoughts.


Fact skepticism:


Traditional formalism: Applying the rules to the facts, judges arrive at the decisions R x F= D. However, the selection of facts is the result of a multitude of processes, some of which are hidden. Frank criticizes the frozen record. It is within the trial court proceedings that facts are established and it is here that much uncertainty exists (fact uncertainty). For Frank, judges should take as fiction that rules alone make the decision, the judges should be concerned with delivering equitable justice. The sense of justice of a keen, non-biased judge will produce an equitable decision. However, Frank also admits that with his proposal, law could become even more unpredictable. Grand vs. formal style of decision making. The formal style represents the classical, formal method in arriving at conclusions in law. The grand style is an approach in which every current decision is to be tested against life-wisdom.


Critical Legal Studies


Three stages:

Early 1970’s: Kennedy criticized formalism and the teaching of law.

Mid 1970’s to early 1980’s: the Politics of Law Kairys

Early 1980’s:




Roberto Unger is the most prominent critical legal scholar.


Feminist Jurisprudence


It took shape in the late 1980’s in the USA. Law presents a number of limitations to the realization of social values:


Due to the reliance on precedents (stare decisis), the established body of law is overly phallocentric (male dominated) and any issue that deviates from this body of knowledge is less likely to attain a hearing and a favorably resolution.

The court’s focus on the rational and coherent is another limitation. Feminists’ claims often arise from a multitude of sources, which may appear to be contradictory at times.


Feminist standpoint epistemology identifies woman’s status as that of victim, and then privileges that status by claiming that it gives access to understanding about oppression that others cannot have (Bartlett).

Thus, this approach sees the knowledge as based upon experience of the oppressed but it rejects objectivity and any possibility of an essential truth.


Feminist Legal Methods (Bartlett)


Rooted in a standpoint epistemology, feminists should focus on at least three factors:

Asking the woman question, i.e., what needs to be articulated is the often silenced voice of the excluded, which entails looking beneath the surface of law to identify the gender implications of rules and assumptions underlying the rules that do not perpetuate women’s subordination.

Feminist practical reasoning: This method privileges a feminist practical reasoning, which takes into consideration the experiential –the unique concrete experiences of the repressed instead of deductive logic. It looks at multiple perspectives, contradictions, and inconsistencies. Use self-reflection.


Conscious raising: the goal is for individual and collective empowerment not for personal vendettas.

In sum, this feminist legal method is focused on deconstruction and reconstruction.

Law and Economics Movement

Market exchanges are a function of the legal order.

Assign rights in a manner that minimizes the amount of overall costs (usually involving the transaction costs).

Coase theorem: Courts are concerned with assigning rights to the party that would find them most worthwhile to purchase and also involves the least amount of transaction costs if they are sold to another party.