Why do we need law, and what does it do for society? More specifically, what functions does law perform? As with the definition of law, there is no agreement among scholars of law and society on the precise functions, nor is there consensus on their relative weight and importance. A variety of functions are highlighted in the literature depending on the conditions under which law operates at a particular time and place. The recurrent focal themes include social control, dispute settlement, and social change. We shall now consider them briefly. These functions of the law will be examined in detail in the chapters dealing with social control, conflict resolution, and social change.


In a small, traditional, and homogeneous society, behavioral conformity is ensured by the fact that socializing experiences are very much the same for all members. Social norms tend to be consistent with each other, there is consensus about them, and they are strongly supported by tradition. Social control in such a society is primarily dependent upon self-sanctioning. Even on those occasions when external sanctions are required, they seldom involve formal punishment. Deviants are mostly subjected to informal mechanisms of social control, such as gossip, ridicule, or humiliation. Although they exist, banishment, or forms of corporal punishment are rare in modern societies (Gram, 2006).

Even in a complex, heterogeneous society like the United States, social control rests largely on the internalization of shared norms. Most individuals behave in socially acceptable ways, and as in simpler societies, fear of disapproval from family, friends, and neighbors is usually adequate to keep potential deviants in check (Matza, 2010). Nevertheless, the great diversity of the population; the absence of similar values, attitudes, and standards of conduct; and the competitive struggles between groups with different interests all necessitate formal mechanisms of social control. Formal social control is characterized by “(1) explicit rules of conduct, (2) planned use of sanctions to support the rules, and (3) designated officials to interpret and enforce the rules, and often to make them” (Davis, 1962:43).

Modern societies manifest many methods of social control, both formal and informal.

Law is considered the key form of formal social control as it specifies rules for behavior and also the sanctions for misbehavior (Friedman, 1977). Of course, as we shall see, law does not have a monopoly on formal mechanisms of social control. Other types of formal mechanisms (such as firing, promotion, demotion, relocation, compensation manipulation, and so forth) are found in industry, academe, government, business, and various private groups (Selznick, 1969).

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