Why does law matter?

Many contemporary challenges involve the law or have a socio-legal dimension, whether they concern the economy, politics, the socio-cultural sphere, or the environment.

Examples of relevant socio-legal phenomena include:

  • Economy: resource conflicts, intellectual property and digital commons, over-indebtedness, forced labour, crypto-assets, financial (de)regulation
  • Politics: democratic transitions, political conditionality, border control regimes, investor-state conflicts, disenfranchisement, extra-territorial jurisdiction
  • Social and cultural sphere: penal policies, principle of non-discrimination, safe migration, restorative justice, religious tribunals, indigenous rights
  • Environment: precautionary principle, climate justice, emissions trading, environmental litigation, responsible sourcing, regulation of the global commons

To tackle contemporary challenges therefore often means to engage with the potentials and limits of law in solving social problems.  

How to understand the role of law in society?

However, law is not a political instrument only, it is also a matter of cultural beliefs, and it develops a life of its own in the practices of legal scholars and professionals.

From a sociological point of view, law is an important social institution which structures our behaviour in manifold ways. Legal forms and documents accompany us throughout our lives. Legal frameworks define the realm of politics and economics, our private sphere, and even personhood. Law has enabling and restrictive functions; it facilitates or restrains certain courses of action. Law also has a constitutive function, as it often creates our very capacity to act, and its categories shape our thinking about the world. In all these ways, law promotes social order. It is a material and moral force, which can be believed in or imposed upon. Law includes and excludes.

What is the sociology of law?

The power of law, normative and factual, is the subject of socio-legal studies and the sociology of law. The common denominator of scholarship in this field is to study law as a social institution and sphere of reality, which hugely impacts people’s lives, and not as a corpus of rules and principles understood as a system on its own. The sociology of law combines the viewpoints of empirical social science and critical social theory. It takes a plethora of perspectives on board that put law in its social context, explain changes in its form and content, political relevance, and social validity.

One of the classic topics in this field is the gap between ‘law in books’ and ‘law in action’, which is about whether law reaches the people it means to serve, and how it materialises in their lives. Another important subject area are intersections of normative orders, where legal sources of a different pedigree coexist or compete, and it is relevant to understand what people regard as ‘their’ law. The sociology of law also embraces questions of law and political economy, which bring relations of law, the economy, power, and justice to the fore. Rather than thinking of the ‘law of the market’ as a given, socio-legal perspectives help unpacking the role of law in constituting, enabling and restricting economic practices and behaviours. Moreover, the socio-legal field also includes studies of law as culture, where the symbols, artefacts and sensations of law are studied in their own right and as part of human cultural production. This includes law’s representation in literature and audio-visual media and may even extend to the smell of law books and courthouses.

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Scope and focus of this programme

The sociology of law is a discipline that helps to understand the potentials and limits of law in solving social problems. This perspective is shared in the broader field of socio-legal studies, which draws on theories and methods from across the social sciences as well as the humanities.

This Master's degree programme offers a comprehensive introduction into the sociology of law and socio-legal studies for advanced students coming from different backgrounds in law or the social sciences and multiple regional contexts across the world. The programme promotes an understanding of the role of law in society, and its manifold cultural, political, and economic settings, from a comparative, interdisciplinary and international perspective.

What makes this International Master in Sociology of Law special is that:

  • It is a very compact programme of only one year, with an intense on-site course period of about six months (late September to late March), followed by thesis work. This makes it faster for you to move ahead and reduces your funding needs.
  • Within this period, the programme gives a broad overview of the field of socio-legal studies and covers the main subject areas in the sociology of law, while always putting emphasis on topical issues and latest developments in the state-of-the-art.
  • It is a research-oriented programme that provides you with the conceptual foundations and methodological skills to engage in socio-legal research projects on your own. Moreover, you will become part of an international network of scholars.
  • As an international Master’s programme, it is not confined to specific national or regional contexts, but takes the comparative, international and global dimensions of socio-legal problems seriously. This global mindset will stay with you in your future work.

Read more on the programme structure and learning outcomes in this document.

For more information: 

Master Coordination Team

IISL Master Coordination Team
Avenida de la Universidad, 8
Apartado 28
20560 Oñati (Gipuzkoa) - Spain
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