Sociology of Law as a Multidisciplinary Field of Research

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Sociology of Law as a Multidisciplinary
Field of Research
Kaijus Ervasti
Sociology of Law as Research Field and Academic Subject ……..... 138
The Tasks of Sociology of Law and its Relation to Legal Science ... 141
Research Fields that are Close to the Sociology of Law ……….…... 145
In Conclusion …..…..…..…..…..…..…..…..…..…..…..…..……..…... 146
References …..……...…..…..…..…..…..…..…..…..…..…..…..…..…. 147
Scandinavian Studies In Law © 1999-2012
Kaijus Ervasti: Sociology of Law as a Multidisciplinary Field of Research
Sociology of Law as Research Field and Academic Subject
“Law and sociology have always had a close, if troubled, relationship as
academic disciplines. They share common origins in the eighteenth century as
attempts to understand and regulate the social world according to rational
principles... Nevertheless, despite some attempts to bring the two disciplines
closer together they remain frustratingly apart.” (Banakar & Travers 2002, p. 1)
Law can be approached from many different perspectives and in a variety of
ways. The traditional legal scientist sees law as an autonomous system, the
official legal system, the rules of which he or she systematises and interprets. A
social scientist, again, sees law as part of the societal system, whereby he or she
observes law as part of society. There are also many different approaches to law
and society that cannot always be distinguished from one another in a clear-cut
way. Legal sociology, legal anthropology, legal history, legal psychiatry as well
as law and economics, among others, have established themselves as distinct
research disciplines. Characteristic of all these research areas is a
multidisciplinary approach. In many instances these different research
orientations also intertwine.
Sociology of law has during different periods of time been given a variety of
characterisations and definitions. They have varied according to any dominant
perception of science, and also according to the discipline and theoretical
tradition, within which the definition has been formulated. A societal perspective
on law has also at an international level been depicted through a variety of terms,
such as, Sociology of Law, Law and Society Studies, Socio-Legal Studies and
Empirical Studies of Law. (As to the interrelation among these, see Campbell &
Wiles 1976, pp. 549-555, Cotterrell 1994, pp. xi-xiii, Galanter & Edwards 1997,
pp. 375-376, Mather 2003, p. 276, Brockman 2003, pp. 286-287). In Finland all
these depictions have generally been covered by the concept sociology of law.
Sociology of law may be approached as an institutionalised subject in
university studies. In many Western universities there are chairs in sociology of
law, and sociology of law is an established part of university curricula. Research
and teaching in the sociology of law is organised in varied ways in different
countries. In some countries the sociology of law forms part of research and
teaching in social sciences, whereas in other countries it is part of research and
teaching in legal science. However, it is often noted that the sociology of law is
at the margin of both these disciplines (Luhman 1985, pp. 1-2, Tomasic 1985, p.
126, Friedman 1986, pp. 773-780).
As a research tradition, the sociology of law has been fairly weak and
scattered in Finland. There are, though, chairs in sociology of law in the law
faculties at the University of Helsinki and the University of Turku. However,
after World War II, empirical research in the sociology of law has been firmly
concentrated to sectoral research institutions, the National Research Institute of
Legal Policy and the Police College of Finland (Laitinen 1996, pp. 49-51,
Ervasti 1998, p. 371, Kangas 1998, pp. 194-200, Haavisto 2002, p. 6). Also
doctoral dissertations in the discipline sociology of law have been very
Scandinavian Studies In Law © 1999-2012
Kaijus Ervasti: Sociology of Law as a Multidisciplinary Field of Research
Notwithstanding, sociology of law is generally regarded as a theoretical
research orientation. Sociology of law is a multidisciplinary research
orientation, located at the borderline of legal science and general social sciences,
sociology. There are a variety of opinions about the sociology of law as a
scientific research orientation, and also about its tasks. These are, among others,
dependent on whether sociology of law is approached form the perspective of
sociology or legal science, from which theoretical tradition (in social sciences) it
is approached, and also what perceptions the researcher has about the nature of
reality and knowledge. There has, among others, been talk about “lawyers’
sociology of law” and “sociologists’ sociology of law”, reflecting the
researcher’s affinity to questions formulated in legal science or sociology.
(Aubert 1968, p. 20-22). Views about how legal science and social sciences
relate to each other are dependent on three central points of departure, that his,
how they distinguish 1) law and society, 2) legal science and social sciences, and
3) how the relationship between law and society is perceived.
Social scientists have often seen sociology of law as a special field of
sociology along with sociology of the family, organisational sociology,
sociology of health or sociology of religion (Mathiesen 1980, p. 9, DalbergLarsen 1990, pp. 18-19, Uusitalo 1999, p. 818, Kyntäjä 2000, p. 16, Laitinen
2002, pp. 7-8). On this score sociology of law, its tasks and methods, are
perceived on pair with sociology in general. In this perspective emphasis is
placed on differences between legal science and social sciences. Also legal
scholars have often related sociology of law to social sciences and excluded it
from the field of legal science (for instance Tuori 2000, pp. 303-305).
Black (1995, s. 862-864) has been most outspoken in safeguarding the purity
of sociology of law from a sociological perspective. He has advanced the view
that normative arguments or rules that lawyers see as binding are not facts that
can be analysed in the sociology of law. He has also emphasised that “pure”
sociology cannot for example examine the effects of legal rules, because then it
gets involved in “unscientific” speculations. Black rejects teleology in sociology
that he considers as “bad science”. Summarising he notes: "In my sociology,
social life has no goals, purposes, values, needs, functions, interests, intentions,
or anything else not directly observable by anyone.” Black’s theoretical points of
departure have received much criticism (see for example Nonet 1976, pp. 525534).
There are others, who consider that research in the sociology of law is needed
to enhance an understanding of the inner world of law that is of relevance for
law and legal policy. From this perspective it is seen that the sociology of law
cannot merely be perceived from the theoretical tradition of sociology, but also
legal scholarship is needed. According to Eckhoff (1985, pp. 32-36), for
example, lawyers should take empirical research “in their own hands”. They
should not be confident that social scientists investigate reality in such a way
that it would be of significance for law and legal policy.
Sociology of law can thus also be seen as a branch of legal science. From the
perspective of legal science, research in the sociology of law has above all been
justified on grounds that lawyers lack tools for handling facts about reality. To
perceive and picture reality is often seen as unproblematic among lawyers
(Tolonen, J. 1997, pp. 300-308). Lawyers have often also been accused of seeing
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Kaijus Ervasti: Sociology of Law as a Multidisciplinary Field of Research
social facts as things that may be manipulated and as means for pursuing a
certain policy of action, and not so much as data that would give them a reason
to change their own perspective (Munger 1998, pp. 26-27).
Dalberg-Larsen (1990, pp. 41-43) has distinguished four different perceptions of
the sociology of law. Above all legal scientists have characterised sociology of
law as certain methods, through which legal questions can be examined. Such
methods almost exclusively involve quantitative statistical ones. At the same
time, the relevance for lawyers of sociological theories has been questioned.
Second, sociology of law has been described as a way to investigate legal
phenomena from a sociological perspective. By this is meant making use of
sociological methods as well as sociological theories. Third, sociology of law has
been given a more limited meaning, whereby research should merely focus on
central legal institutions or organs, such as courts, legislation or the
administration. Fourth, there is, above all in the US, a long tradition of
researching the factual significance of legal rules in society. In this approach
legal science is criticised for focussing on formal rules, whereby the difference
between formal law (Law in Books) and factual legal practises (Law in Action) is
brought to the fore in its stead (see Pound 1910).
There have been disputes among these different perspectives. Legal scientists
have been of the view that sociologists do not understand or respect the content
of law. According to them, sociologists undermine law as a professional activity.
It is seen that social scientists have concentrated on unofficial social control,
ignoring thereby the official control and the social significance of the legal
system. Sociologists, for their part, have complained that legal scientists are not
sufficiently sociological in their examination of “Law in Context” or in their
studies inspired by the “Law and Society” movement. In many countries
sociologists’ basic degree does not include law-related studies except, perhaps,
as part of some criminological courses. Conversely, sociology – as understood
by sociologists – are normally not taught in law faculties (Banakar & Travers
2002, p.1).
The emergence of the “Law and Society” movement that focuses on the relations
between law and society is normally traced back to the mid 1960s. The
emergence of this movement was associated with general social change in the
US, along with a critique of prevalent societal practices. Law was seen as an
important tool for social change, and behind it there was the idea to make use of
knowledge offered by social sciences about reality, for policy purposes. The
“Law and Society” movement was institutionalised in 1964 with the foundation
of the “Law and Society Association” and also with the “Law and Society
Review” that has been published since 1966. The movement focussed its
attention on different social problems and strove to improve the position of
different population groups and also to promote equality (Ewick & Kagan &
Sarat 1999, pp. 5-6, Cotterrell 1994, p. xii).
The “Law and Society” movement criticised the traditional focus of legal
science on formal rules, emphasising in its stead the difference between formal
law (“Law in Books”) and factual legal practises (“Law in Action”). One central
goal was to throw light on the process whereby “Law in Books” was transformed
into “Law in Action” (White 1986 pp. 819-843). Demands were made for
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Kaijus Ervasti: Sociology of Law as a Multidisciplinary Field of Research
empirical research about the effects of law in society, as well as analysis about
the role of law as a means of social control and steering. At a theoretical level the
“Law and Society” movement had its roots in the American legal realism of the
early 20th century.
According to Tamanah (1997, pp. 12-14) only a few social scientists researching
law have studied law. Conversely, few legal researchers have extensive
competence in social sciences. According to Tamanah representatives of both
orientations are partly blind to the views of the others, deaf to their way of
deliberation and ignorant of the interests and matters of concern of the others.
This has also lead to a situation whereby research in the sociology of law
sometimes has received a second-class status within both disciplines. In social
sciences faculties legal sociologists have been accused of lacking scientific
maturity, and in law faculties their work is seen as irrelevant for legal questions.
Notwithstanding, many have been of the opinion that the sociology of law
should be open to different social sciences such as legal science (for example
Dalberg-Larsen 2000, pp. 36-38, Cotterrell 1998, Raiser 1999, pp. 30-31). It has
also been argued that the sociology of law need not necessarily be seen merely
as part of academic sociology. Instead, the sociology of law should be seen as a
truly multidisciplinary field of research. It should also be noted that research
falling under the label sociology of law is today pursued from a variety of
perspectives (Cotterrell 1984, pp. 6-7). In the Nordic countries, for example,
sociology of law has had very strong ties to legal theory and legal philosophy,
and many sociologists of law have also had a legal training. In addition to
sociologists of law, also anthropologists and political researchers, among others,
have pursued research in the sociology of law (See Laitinen 1996, pp. 50-519,
Mathiesen 1998, p. 72, Dalberg-Larsen 2000, pp. 26-28). Some are of the view
that cooperation between legal scientists and sociologists has increased during
past years (Vago 2003, pp. 28-29).
Established divisions among disciplines as well as the division into subjects
(curriculum) can be seen as social constructions that are based on academic
policy, as well as on a division of work among sciences, rather than based on
purely intellectual grounds. According to Cotterrell (1986, p. 10) both legal
science and sociology should, as research orientations, be understood as social
rather than intellectual phenomena. Hence, they can only be understood in their
historical context. There is no “pure” intellectual necessity determining their
existence but instead certain social, political and economic circumstances (see
also Rubin 1997, s. 543-544).
The Tasks of Sociology of Law and its Relation to Legal Science
“Dogmatik ohne Soziologie ist leer, Soziologie ohne Dogmatik ist blind.”
(Kantorowicz 1911)
At a general level, sociology of law may be defined as a research orientation that
examines the interrelation between legal practices, institutions, legal doctrines
and their social context (Cotterrell 1994, s. xi-xiii). Law is thus researched from
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Kaijus Ervasti: Sociology of Law as a Multidisciplinary Field of Research
a social sciences perspective. Earlier it was generally seen that sociology of law
examines the interaction between law and society (for example Ross 1953, p. 30,
Kyntäjä & Laitinen 1983, p. 9). Criticism against the view that law and society
are separate phenomena, the interaction of which could be studied, is today
fairly generally accepted. Instead it is often seen that research in the sociology of
law is concerned with law in society or in its societal context. According to this
view, law and society are at multiple levels intertwined and they cannot always
be clearly separated from one another.
The interrelation between law and society can be distinguished in three different
ways. Law may first be seen as an autonomous system, whereby law should be
understood on its own terms independent of the social context. Second, the
relationship between law and society may be understood as interactive.
According to this view law and society are distinct phenomena, but they interact
at many different levels. Third, law and society may be seen as homologous,
whereby their structure and origin are so intertwined that they cannot be
separated one from the other (Friedrichs 2001, pp. 5-6).
The perspective on law offered by sociology of law differs essentially from the
perspective of the core of legal science, legal dogmatics. Their points of
departure, research methods, goals and perceptions of law differ one from the
other. The following figure presents the differences between the perspectives of
legal dogmatics and sociology of law (see also Black 1989, p. 21, Friedrichs
2001, p. 119).
Legal dogmatics
Sociology of law
The participant’s
Factual behaviour, practices
and institutions
The observer’s
Method/ generally
Text hermeneutics
Social sciences’ methods
Typical method
Analysis of empirical material
Interpretation and
Law as an autonomous system
Law in its social context
Perception of law
Formal law
Formal and informal law
To create coherence within the
legal system
To explain and examine
Figure 1. The relationship between legal dogmatics and sociology of law.
For legal dogmatics, it is seen as a central task to interpret and systematise legal
rules. The work of the legal scientist is compared to that of the judge, and the
theory about the sources of law has been elevated to a central point of departure.
At the same time, emphasis is placed on the particular “internal” perspective of
the legal scientist as opposed to the “external” perspective of representatives of
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Kaijus Ervasti: Sociology of Law as a Multidisciplinary Field of Research
other disciplines. It is seen that legal science examines rules whereas social
sciences examine regularities. The border between is and ought has been signed
out as a central factor that distinguishes the approach of legal dogmatics from an
empirical social one (Aarnio 1989, pp. 46-61, Aarnio & Riepula 1991, p. 448,
Tuori 2000, pp. 303-305). Legal dogmatics has as its central task to explore the
content of current legislation. The perception of law is thus limited to current
official legislation. Thereby the knowledge interest and research method differs
from the research interest and method of the sociology of law.
The perceived task of sociology of law, again, is to develop general theories
that explain social processes related to law. Another task assigned sociology of
law is empirical research and analysis of the mutual relationship and variables
between central legal and social phenomena (Friedrichs 2001, p. 118.).
Sociology of law can take as its research object practices involving the drafting
of laws and law reform. In this case the research interest of the sociology of law
is not specifically directed towards the interaction between law and society, but
rather towards how and in what form law is shaped in legal practices. Legal
dogmatics, again, is part of law as a social practice. In research in the sociology
of law, one has to know the methods, through which law is formulated as well as
legal reasoning.
Trubek (1984, pp. 575-622), who has examined “empiricism” and discussions
about it in the “Critical Legal Studies” movement, has found that empiricism has
been given several different meanings. Some relate empiricism directly to
positivism and determinism. Others, again, see empiricism as non-dogmatic legal
science. In everyday speech empiricism is often referred to as certain research
methods, such as interview surveys or multi-variable analyses. Researchers who
take a pragmatic approach, again, have emphasised that their interest in
examining “facts” has to do with a practical interest rather than an
epistemological attachment to positivism or a belief in determinism. In Finland J.
Tolonen (1988, p.175), among others, has emphasised the problematic character
of the term “empiricism”.
Sociology of law – independently of the researcher’s theoretical orientation –
explains the reasons for certain phenomena and their effects, or strives to picture
and increase understanding of both official and unofficial legal institutions and
actors. Other relevant questions are the origin of modern law, forms of legal
thought and reasoning, as well as their relation to certain politico-economic
systems. The sociologist of law reflects on the relation of law to social change
and vice versa: the significance of social change for law. Legal dogmatics, again,
is not interested in these kinds of questions, but takes instead current legislation
as a given fact, as it were. In simplified terms one might say that legal dogmatics
is conceptual and steering whereas sociology of law is a descriptive and
explanatory field of research (Sutton 2001, p. 14.)
Sociology of law thus investigates legal phenomena using methods and
theories offered by social sciences. The use of social sciences’ methods involves
two central elements: 1) a recognition that all perspectives and observations are,
by necessity, somewhat one-sided and incomplete, as observations never are
disassociated from the observer, but also 2) that it involves a serious attempt to
overcome incomplete perspectives through a systematic collection, analysis and
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interpretation of the empirical material (Cotterrell 1984, pp. 4-5). In other words,
no absolute and unambiguous “truth” can be obtained in social sciences
research, but one has to be satisfied with a picture of the world that is as “close
to the truth” as possible. This can be attempted through systematic collection of
material and methods of analysis (see Niiniluoto 2003, pp. 7-11).
According to Hydén (1997, pp. 112-115), practicing lawyers do not only
interpret law but in fact they also make extensive use of a sociology of law
perspective. Little attention is, however, devoted to this in legal training and
research. In his argumentation for this view Hydén refers, among others, to
contracts that is the most common legal instrument. When drawing up a
contract, a practicing lawyer has to be attentive both to the reasons for the choice
of solutions and also to their effects. Many other scholars have equally seen that
the sociology of law has something to offer practicing lawyers and legal science
researchers alike (for example Hellner 1969, pp. 209-210, Eckhoff 1985, pp. 3236, Ervasti 2004, pp. 12-20).
Within legal science, sociology of law supplements legal dogmatics by
addressing different kinds of questions to the legal system. On the other hand,
sociology of law also competes with legal dogmatics for an interpretation of law.
The point of departure for legal dogmatics is that law determines application.
Sociology of law challenges legal dogmatics by arguing that there may also be
law external factors that influence the application of law in individual cases
(Hydén 1997, pp. 112-115). Sociology of law thereby rejects the idea of law as
an autonomous system that could be interpreted merely through its own internal
rules (see Galanter & Edwards 1997, pp. 375-376, Munger 1998, pp. 53-54,
Laitinen 2002, p. 13, Milovanovic 2003, p. 5).
In research in the sociology of law, law is generally not limited to current
official legislation, but it also extends to different unofficial procedures and
practices outside the official machinery. Above all the anthropology of law that
focuses on the law of indigenous peoples has had difficulties in accepting
positivist legal theory and concepts in Western law. In this regard, criticism has,
among others, been voiced against the idea of law being determined by the
central power, courts, and police or through the sovereign legislator’s set of laws
(Nousiainen 1985, p. 2). Compared to the unofficial social system there are,
furthermore, so small difference between existing practices in courts and other
legal institutions in Western industrialised countries, in regard to the use of
agreements, compromises, pressure and political support, that it is difficult to
distinguish them from each other. Research in social aspects of law has partly
blurred the distinction between the legal and the non-legal social order (Kidder
1997, p. 198).
Another aspect that is specific to the sociology of law is that it does not bind
itself by legal concepts or legal ways of perceiving the world (Rottleuthner
1987, p. 4-5). The knowledge interest and the concepts used in the sociology of
law are thus not limited to questions that are relevant or interesting for law. In
the sociology of law frequent use is made of the concept of conflict, which is
more extensive than the juridical concept of a legal dispute. On the same score,
the term deviant behaviour is frequently used instead of the legally defined
criminal concept. There have, though, also been attempts to construct a
sociological concept of crime (Laitinen & Aromaa 2005, pp. 12-17). The norm is
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Kaijus Ervasti: Sociology of Law as a Multidisciplinary Field of Research
one of the most central concepts both in legal science and in the sociology of
law. However, in the sociology of law it is given a considerably much wider
meaning, as it is not merely confined to official norms.
In various textbooks on the sociology of law, themes such as the following are
frequently considered: 1) the theoretical origins of the sociology of law, 2) the
functions of law, 3) legislation and its effects, 4) conflicts and conflict resolution,
5) social control, 6) legal institutions (courts, legislator, administration), 7) law
and social change, 8) the legal profession, 9) legal culture (se among others
Aubert 1976, Tomasic 1985, Rottleuthner 1987, Röhl 1987, Dalberg-Larsen
1989, Raiser 1999, Friedrichs 2001, Anleu 2003, Vago 2003, Alvesalo & Ervasti
2006). Emphasis varies in different textbooks, but this list gives an indication
about what themes have been seen as central in the sociology of law.
Research Fields that are Close to the Sociology of Law
“Indes scheint es, daß einer Soziologie des Rechtes als selbständiger Disziplin
die Größten Schwierigkeiten entgegenstehen” (Kelsen 1915, p. 875)
Research fields that are close to the sociology of law are legal policy,
criminology and criminal policy. Criminology focuses on research on crime as a
social phenomenon. In criminology efforts are made to explain, above all, the
reasons for crime and the working of the control system (Lappi-Seppälä 1997,
pp. 190-194). In criminology crime can be approached from several research
traditions, such as psychology, biology, anthropology or psychiatry. The
sociological part of criminology is sometimes called criminal sociology (Christie
1965, p. 15). There are numerous meeting points between criminology and the
sociology of law. In practice, a major part of research in criminology can also be
seen as research in the sociology of law (Anttila & Törnudd 1983, p. 20,
Laitinen & Aromaa 2005, pp. 20-21). By research in criminal policy is meant
research that strives to, or is able to participate in or to influence societal
decision-making, planning, the formulation of policy guidelines or practices
relating to crime and its control (Lappi-Seppälä 1997, p. 194).
Legal policy represents a similar companion to the sociology of law as
criminal policy is to criminology. Legal policy research can, on the same lines
as criminal policy, be defined as research that aims at, and has the ability to
influence decision-making in legal policy matters, the drafting of laws, planning,
the formulation of guidelines as well as practices (see also Anttila & Törnudd
1973, Törnudd 1992 and Laitinen 1999, pp. 796-797). However, there are no
clear distinctions between legal policy research and research in the sociology of
law. In many cases, legal policy research is in fact applied research in the
sociology of law. De lege ferenda research in legal science, that is, research
directed towards the drafting of laws can be seen as one sub-section of legal
policy research (Linna 1987, pp. 5-9).
According to Aarnio legal policy research can be defined in three different ways.
First, legal policy research can be defined according to its tasks and purposes. In
this regard, research involves legal policy only if its purpose is to produce
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Kaijus Ervasti: Sociology of Law as a Multidisciplinary Field of Research
information needed for planning. Second, legal policy research can be defined
from the point of view of the practical use of the research findings. Research
involves legal policy if it is factually used in legal policy planning and decision
making. Third, research can be seen as legal policy research if it is possible to
use it in societal planning (Aarnio 1983, s. 233-236).
Other research orientations that have affinities to the sociology of law are,
among others, such research fields as legislative research and administrative
science (Rottleuthner 1987, pp. 4-5, Tala 2004). Another research tradition that
comes close to research in the sociology of law is program evaluation, whereby
is meant a systematic application of social sciences’ methods for the purpose of
assessing the conceptualisation of societal programs, planning, implementation,
as well as their usefulness. (Rossi & Freeman 1993, p. 5).
Sociology of law has also meeting points with many other fields of research.
Laitinen (1996, pp. 171-180) has for example pointed to traditions of thought
such as the autopoesis theory of law, the Critical Legal Studies movement as
well as feministic legal theory, as being close to the sociology of law.
In Conclusion
“It might not even be fruitful to separate the sociology of law from legal science.
It can quite well be seen as part of legal science, and equally as part of general
sociology” (Laitinen 1996, p. 9).
By way of summary, the sociology of law is a demanding interdisciplinary field
of research. On the one hand, it requires the mastery of methods in social
sciences, but on the other, it also requires an understanding of legal thinking, and
the way in which the content of law is determined and the decisions are reasoned
in the legal world. The sociology of law can enhance an understanding of legal
phenomena in ways that the traditional legal science cannot. At the same time it
can offer new perspectives for social sciences.
The sociology of law should also be recognised as a genuine field of research
that encompasses many different sub-orientations and a variety of actors. It is
thus not meaningful to narrowly delimit or define the sociology of law out of the
tradition of a specific research discipline or profession. One should instead
rather accept theoretical pluralism and see the sociology of law as a field where
researchers from different traditions can discuss together. In a small country it
also requires networking and cooperation among different research entities. It
appears that in the sociology of law cooperation has during past years increased
among different universities and sectoral research institutions. There also
appears to be increasing cooperation among different research orientations such
as criminology, sociology of law, legal policy research, legislative research and
evaluative research.
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Kaijus Ervasti: Sociology of Law as a Multidisciplinary Field of Research
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