LAW AS AN INSTRUMENT OF SOCIAL CHANGE

There are abundant historical and cross-cultural illustrations in which the new laws have been used deliberately to induce broad social changes in society (Jimenez, 2010). Since Roman times, great ages of social change and mobility almost always involved great use of law and of litigation. There are several illustrations of the idea that law, far from being simply a reflection of social reality, is a powerful means of accomplishing reality—that is, of fashioning it or making it. In one of history’s most important examples, the former Soviet Union used new laws to make fundamental changes in society (Dror, 1968). In Spain, during the 1930s, law was used to reform agrarian labor and employment relations (Collier, 1989). More recently, the attempts by Nazi Germany and later on by Eastern European countries to make wholesale social changes through the use of laws—such as nationalization of industry, land reform and introduction of collective farms, provision of free education and health care, and elimination of social inequities—illustrate of the effectiveness of law to induce change, even if some of the changes were on the wrong side of history (Eorsi and Harmathy, 1971). In China, when the Communist party came to power in 1949, virtually all vices that are ubiquitous in Western countries— prostitution, gambling, pornography, drug trafficking, and usury—were eliminated by government decree along with business operations that were dependent on profits from such activities (Muhlhahn, 2009). China also managed to moderate through law its population growth and as a result devote more of its resources to economic development and modernization (Diamant et al., 2005).

Acknowledgment of the role of law as an instrument of social change is becoming more pronounced in contemporary society. As Wolfgang Friedmann (1972:513) once noted, “The law—through legislative or administrative responses to new social conditions and ideas, as well as through judicial re-interpretations of constitutions, statutes or precedents— increasingly not only articulates but sets the course for major social changes” (1972:513). Thus, “attempted social change, through law, is a basic trait of the modern world” (Friedman, 1975:277). Reflecting this fact, many sociolegal scholars consider law as a desirable, necessary, and often effective means of inducing social change.

In present-day societies, the role of law in social change is of more than theoretical interest. In many areas of social life, such as education, race relations, housing, transportation, energy utilization, the protection of the environment, labor movement, immigration, crime prevention, and alleviation of poverty, law and litigation are important instruments of change (Milkman et al., 2010). In the United States, the law has been used as a principal mechanism for improving the political and social position of African Americans. Since the 1960s, the courts and Congress have dismantled a racial caste system embedded in the law and in practice for generations. The old order was swept away by legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as well as by the commitment of billions of dollars to social welfare programs.

In a relatively short time, these policies produced notable effects. For example, the immediate results of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were dramatic, particularly in states that had successfully resisted earlier attempts to end voting discrimination. The percentage of potential black voters registered in Alabama increased from 23% to 52% between 1964 and 1967. By 1969, it had gone up to 61%. In Mississippi, this figure increased from 7% in 1964 to 60% in 1967, and then to 67% by 1969. Between the 1964 and 1968 presidential elections, overall black registration in the South increased by nearly a million voters. About 75% of the increase came in the six states that were fully covered by the Voting Rights Act—Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina. This effectively doubled the number of registered blacks in those states (Logan and Winston, 1971:27).

The 1965 law, through its impact on black registration and voting, also had profound consequences for black political power. In 1965, there were some 70 elected black officials in the South. By 1969, their number had risen to 400. In 1981, there were approximately 2,500 elected black officials in 11 southern states, including a black mayor in Atlanta (Scher and Button, 1984:45).

Similarly, in the former Soviet Union, the law was a principal instrument in transforming society after World War II from a bourgeois to a socialist one. Legal enactments initiated and legitimized rearrangements in property and power relations, transformed basic social institutions such as education and health care, and opened up new avenues of social mobility for large segments of the population. Legislation guided the reorganization of agricultural production from private ownership to collective farms, the creation of new towns, and the development of a socialist mode of economic production, distribution, and consumption. These changes, in turn, affected values, beliefs, socialization patterns, and the structure of social relationships.

 
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