While it is depicted as an overarching magisterial power that rules over society, the law is not an abstract entity beyond the human reach. In fact, the law is a set of practical approaches to governing a social system. Law and society are two interconnected dimensions to a societal structure; neither can stand alone on its own. And Black History month is the perfect time to revisit what law truly means when it comes to governing society.
Philosophical thinkers centuries ago have formulated several theories on what law truly is and how it is meant to govern a social system. Today, it is clear that law shapes the way humans interact — whether they are aware of it or not. “At the most basic level, law creates conceptual categories and determines their contents and boundaries,” says Kitty Calavita, an author and chancellor’s professor at the University of California, Irvine. These boundaries are ones constructed by how the law has been defined. “Immigrant,” for example, cannot be considered a category unless there exists immigration law to put the term in practice. Such is also the case with categories such as “refugee,” “illegal alien,” “felony,” “criminal,” and “prison.”
It is for this reason that law and society thinkers who examine the concept of race, for instance, assert that it is not a fixed idea based in law, but rather a socio-legally constructed definition. In this way, the law has been given the ability to construe social realities that appear natural but are established by inventing systematic categories and concepts. This is one of the primary reasons that law wields immense power, particularly in the United States. It has established itself as the sole institution that defines social concepts and hence has the authority to dictate the principles by which society must adhere to. Jim Crow laws, segregation, and the “separate but equal” doctrine are proof of such defined social concepts, which have changed over and over again with the progression of time.
The danger associated with this form of legally established system is one associated with the disappearance of humans’ sense of responsibility. Stanley Milgram’s “Obedience to Authority” study powerfully depicts this emerging behavior in individuals who are guaranteed protection under such legal systems. Milgram suggests that there is no limit to the horrors humans can commit if they are insued by law and authority. In his words, “The disappearing of a sense of responsibility is the most far-reaching consequence of a submission to authority.” When a social system defines the concepts by which a society conducts itself and puts into place a system of enforcement that requires full compliance of the population, people will give in to the law. They become willing to compromise their sense of identity, morality, conduct, and principle under the authority of a legal system that promises protection.
While this system of law can potentially exterminate a population’s sense of identity and the ability to think freely, it can also provide the very opportunity for the emergence of a counter-response: resistance. Once law becomes a hegemonic entity, it can provoke people to contest its power and opens doors to strong resistance. History has shown time and time again that a legal system aiming to misconstruct values and social norms for a population that nurtures awareness of true principles will ultimately face defeat. This reality is best portrayed in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which he relays the crucial need for adhering to principles of morality and justice in human social relations, and that in cases where civil rights are violated, direct actions must be taken. Silence is not an option.
The establishment of various forms of law in society is rooted in the creation of social norms through re-defining social categories and concepts. While it is viewed as an all-powerful force, the law itself provides the means for legal mobilization, the process by which individuals and collective actors invoke legal norms, discourse, and symbols to influence policy or behavior. A population that lives under a legal system is in no way limited by it. In fact, the legal system itself is the avenue by which humans are able to change the society they live in. True power belongs to the people.