Roberto Mangabeira Unger

Roberto Mangabeira Unger is currently a professor of law at Harvard University. Long active in Brazilian politics, he took a leave from his position at Harvard from 2007 to 2009 to serve in the Brazilian government as minister of strategic affairs.

In Law in Modern Society, Unger (1976) revived the sweeping scope of Max Weber’s theorizing on law by placing the development of rational legal systems within a broad historical and comparative framework. Unger locates the study of law within the major questions of social theory in general: the conflicts between individual and social interests, between legitimacy and coercion, and between the state and society His main thesis is that the development of the rule of law, law that is committed to general and autonomous legal norms, could take place only when competing groups struggle for control of the legal system and when there are universal standards that can justify the law of the state.

Unger’s analysis emphasizes a historical perspective to understand modern law and society. He says that society evolved from customary or interactional law (involving informal norms and reciprocal expectations), to bureaucratic or regulatory law (involving explicit rules created by an actual government), and then to the legal order (the modern legal system, which is universalistic and independent of ruling leaders). From an evolutionary perspective, these different types of law turn out to be stages, for they build upon one another—regulatory law upon customary law and the autonomous legal order upon regulatory law. There is much more to Unger’s complex theory of law that lies beyond the scope of this book, but suffice it to say that his theory has influenced recent sociolegal thinking and scholarship and promises to do so for the foreseeable future.

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