Reciprocity Between Law and Social Change

At the beginning of industrialization and urbanization in Europe, Bentham expected legal reforms to respond quickly to new social needs and to restructure society. He freely gave advice to the leaders of the French revolution, because he believed that countries at a similar stage of economic development needed similar remedies for their common problems.

However, Savigny believed that only fully developed popular customs could form the basis of legal change. As customs grow out of the habits and beliefs of specific people, rather than expressing those of an abstract humanity, legal changes are codifications of customs, and they can only be national and never universal.

There are two contrasting views on this relationship: 

  1. Law is determined by the sense of justice and the moral sentiments of the population, and legislation can only achieve results by staying relatively close to the prevailing social norms.
  2. Law and especially legislation, is a vehicle through which a programmed social evolution can be brought about. In general, a highly urbanized and industrialized society like the US law does play a large part in social change, and vice versa, at least much more than is the case in traditional societies or in traditional sociological thinking. [eg. In the domain of intrafamily relations, urbanization, with its small apartments and crowded conditions, has lessened the desirability of three-generation families in a single household. This social change helped to establish social security laws that in turn helped generate changes in the labor force and in social institutions for the aged.]

Social changes as causes of legal changes

In a broad theoretical framework, social change has been slow enough to make custom the principal source of law. Law could respond to social change over decades or even centuries. Today the tempo of social change accelerated to a point where today’s assumptions may not be valid even in a few years from now. The emergence of new risks to the individual as a result of the decrease of the various family functions, including the protective function, has led to the creation of legal innovations to protect the individuals in modern society.

Eg provisions of workers compensation, unemployment insurance, old-age pensions. Many sociologists and legal scholars assert on the basis of a large amount of accumulated data that technology is one of the great moving forces for change in law in three ways: (read page 335 paragraph 3).

The computer and easy access to cyberspace, especially internet, also have inspired legislation on both the federal and the state levels to safeguard privacy, protects against abuse of credit information and computer crime. Change in law may be induced by a voluntary and gradual shift in community values and attitudes. [eg. People may think that poverty is bad, and laws should be created to reduce it in some way.]

Alternations in social conditions, technology knowledge values, and attitudes then may induce legal change. in such cases law is reactive and follows social change. However, changes in law are only one of many responses to social change. Additionally, laws can be considered both as reactive and proactive in social change.

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By Hassham

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