By Andrew Cohen
When it comes to illuminating how law is used and experienced, the Center for the Study of Law and Society (CSLS) has enjoyed a half-century run leading the field.
“It’s the most significant center in the country, and probably in the world, for study and research on the relationship between legal systems and their social systems,” said Stanford University’s Lawrence Friedman, a professor of law, history, and political science and former president of the Law and Society Association (LSA). “The center has been an enormous asset to Berkeley and a magnet for scholars all over the world. Its international influence has been incalculable.”
CSLS will celebrate its achievements with a 50th anniversary conference, “The Future of Law and Society,” in Berkeley Law’s Booth Auditorium Nov. 3-4. It will feature renowned scholars in socio-legal study, including Friedman and seven other former presidents of LSA—the field’s oldest and largest international association. Berkeley Law professors and panelists Malcolm Feeley and Lauren Edelman ’86 have served as association presidents; while the late Philip Selznick, the center’s founding director, and subsequent Director Jerome Skolnick, played key roles in its founding.
All six CSLS directors that followed Selznick will attend the conference: Skolnick, Feeley, Robert Kagan, Harry Scheiber, Edelman, and current Director Calvin Morrill. The event will examine where the empirical study of law is headed—the exploration of law’s impact on the ground. The panels are intentionally broad in orientation, exploring concepts such as law, rights, and social change; law, culture, and inequality; global governance; and law and society’s place in higher education.
“We expect the dialogue across and between panels will be as important as the topics themselves,” Morrill said. “We’ll be using the work people are doing now as a springboard to ascertain what are the big questions and puzzles we need to explore.”
An underlying theme of CSLS research projects has been the interplay between law and social change. In doing so, CSLS advanced fields such as regulatory studies, criminal justice, and sociology of law. Specific research areas have included litigation and the courts, gender and social policy, law and economics, law and organizations, and extra-legal conflict management.
A New Approach to Law
Center researchers typically challenge conventional legal and policy wisdom, reframing legal decision-making and policy discourse.
“CSLS has really changed the way we look at the law,” Morrill said. “From the beginning, we started looking at law as a social institution; not something apart from society, but something in society.”
The work of CSLS has given rise to new sub-fields of research and policy making in several areas. Skolnick’s The Politics of Protest, a bestseller, changed how both the public perceives, and law enforcement responds to, public protests. Kagan’s Adversarial Legalism became a touchstone for researchers across the world in administrative regulation and the courts.
“New Penology,” a 1992 article by Feeley and fellow Berkeley Law professor Jonathan Simon ’87, identified the emergent trend in American criminal justice away from punishing the individual toward group risk assessment. It has been cited nearly 1,000 times, according to Morrill, and has changed how researchers and lawmakers look at criminal justice policy—particularly incarceration.
Continuing the tradition of rethinking and reshaping our understanding of socio-legal issues, Edelman wrote the definitive empirical study on how judicial decision-making bends to the prerogatives of corporate management. Professor Catherine Albiston ’93 led a transformative study on the exercise of legal rights in challenging workplace inequality.
“CSLS is without a doubt the premier law and society research center in the world and has been since its inception,” said University of Wisconsin professor Howard Erlanger, another former LSA president. “No one else has had the consistent parade of outstanding scholars as affiliates and visitors, and no other center has been responsible for as much research on socio-legal studies.”
The center has welcomed visiting scholars from more than 60 countries in its 50 years, providing it with new perspectives and helping to develop generations of leading scholars in dozens of other countries. It also partners with different academic units across campus.
“We’ve been fortunate to maintain and reproduce a critical mass of top scholars who have done path-breaking work,” Morrill said. “Our hope is that this conference reflects the breadth and depth of that work, and helps identify the next major issues in our field.”