THE ROLE OF THE SOCIAL SCIENTIST
As with the approaches to the study of law and society, different opinions also characterize the question of what role sociologists and other social scientists should play in the understanding of law and society (van Heugten and Gibbs, 2015). These different opinions reflect debates over the “proper” role that social scientists should play in understanding social issues more generally Many social scientists consider their role primarily to synthesize material and to describe and explain sociolegal phenomena objectively (Sherwin, 2006). These social scientists are concerned with the understanding of social life and social processes, and they go about their research in an alleged value-neutral and empirical fashion. They accept as scientific only those theoretical statements whose truth can be proven empirically.
Others social scientists, however, are more critical in their orientation and do not seek merely to describe and explain social events. They assert their right as social scientists also to criticize, and they believe that the task of sociology and other social sciences is to account for human suffering. They aim at demystifying the world and to show people what constrains them and what their routes to freedom are. Their criticisms are prompted by their belief that the human condition and the social order have become unbearable. These critics believe that they have a responsibility not only to identify the factors that have precipitated a deleterious condition but also to provide, through theoretical and empirical efforts, ways of rectifying or redressing this condition.
In the context of law and society studies, illustrations of such attempts by scholars and journalists over the past few decades include: Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow:
Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2012); Jerold S. Auerbach’s Unequal Justice (1976); Mary Ann Glendon’s A Nation Under Lawyers: How the Crisis in the Legal Profession Is Transforming American Society (1994); Elizabeth Hinton’s From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America (2016); Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., and Austin Sarat’s, When Law Fails: Making Sense of Miscarriages of Justice (2009); Richard Quinney’s Critique of Legal Order (2002); Gerry Spence’s With Justice for None (1989); Ann Strick’s Injustice for All (1977); and Martin Yant’s Presumed Guilty: When Innocent People Are Wrongly Convicted (1991).
The debate over the proper role of the social scientist complicates the role of sociologists and other social scientists who study law. Based on one’s values, ideologies, and conception of sociology, and a plethora of other considerations, one may prefer to be a detached observer of social life, a critic of the social order, or an active agent of change. These roles, fortunately, are not mutually exclusive. Depending on the nature of the issue under consideration, the degree of commitment to and involvement in that issue, one may freely select among these alternatives. As an intellectual enterprise, sociology is flexible enough to accommodate these diverse positions. In a sense, they contribute to a greater understanding of the complicated interplay between law and society.