What is Law?
Essay Assignment 1 – What is Law?
A 3 page (meaning no shorter than 3 pages and no longer than 3 and a half pages), double-spaced essay in 12-point font, plus a separate list of any references used in correct APA format (for questions see the APA guidelines at the Purdue Owl Writing Lab: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/560/05/ (Links to an external site.)
This assignment is worth 20 points. Writing this essay will help you better understand course material, hone your writing skills, and prepare for the exam.
Answer the following questions using the Calavita, Silbey & Cavicchi, Chambliss, Espeland & Vannebo readings as well as your notes from class. While you do not need to do an extensive literature review, you will probably need to do a bit of background research to learn more about the “law on the books” that you choose to write about (as you do so, please review the honor code section of your syllabus and cite your sources in your paper).
Also, since this is the first of our writing assignments, it is important to take time to review the Writing Guidelines and Tips at the end of this assignment. It is especially important that you use your own language when you write your answers. I will deduct points if you quote from reading material without citation.
What Is Law?
For this essay, you will explore the question “what is law?” You will apply a law and society perspective to analyze your personal experiences of law, focusing on one of your interactions with law.
Describe one way in which you have personally experienced law. You can write about something as mundane as following the walk sign (or not) when you cross the street or or the documents you must legally supply when applying for a credit card. Or you might write about a more involved experience with law, such as getting a speeding ticket or casting a vote in an election. I recommend that you brainstorm a few different experiences and then think through the questions below to select the one experience that you will write about it in depth.
You can answer the following questions in the order below, or you can modify the order if that fits better for your topic, but make sure you respond to each question somewhere in your essay:
A. Describe your personal situation and discuss “law in action” in that situation. How did law manifest (e.g. as an obvious rule, as something people just seem to know, as altogether unclear, etc.) and what happened? How did you, and perhaps other people, interact with law? Did you follow it, bend it, break it, or something else?
B. One well-known conception of law is as a set of rules made and/or affirmed by government—the “law on the books.” What are the formal legal rules in this situation? You do not need to go into depth about jurisprudence; just explain the basics. Answer at least some of these questions: What is the official purpose of law here, and who creates and/or enforces it? In what ways are the rules clear and precise and it what ways, if any, are they ambiguous? What happens if those rules are broken, and why?
C. What are the material and/or tangible “signs and symbols” of law in this situation (see Silbey & Cavicchi)? What are popular ideas about this law? For example, according to Calavita, one popular conception of law is that it is abstract, universal, and definitive. Another popular concept of law is as something imposed by the government. Do either of these conceptions of law fit your situation, or is there other symbolism around law that is more relevant?
D. Apply evolutionary/cultural theory of law (Durkheim), conflict/materialist theory of law (Marx), OR structural theory of law (Weber) to interpret this manifestation of law. You do not need to apply each theorist, pick the one that is most relevant for understand the law you have chosen. Durkheim wrote about law as moral, efficient, and/or essential to making society function. Do you see this dynamic in your situation? If you analyze your situation in terms of conflict theory, consider how economic power might matter in this situation. How is law in this situation shaped by the economy and those with economic power? For structural theory, consider the role of rationalization, legal-rational authority, and/or accountability in the law. Or you could write about Gramsci’s view of law and hegemony (see Calavita Chap. 3). Use sources from class readings here!
E. How might there be bias in this form of law—either in the way it is written or enforced? Feel free to speculate on any bias that might be in play along the lines of class, race, gender, physical ability, sexual orientation, nationality, or something else.
F. How do you perceive this law? How are your perceptions and behaviors part of your personal identity or personality? How might they be connected to your group-based identities (such as your class, gender, race, etc.)?
There is no single right answer. However, there are a few things I will look for.
• You should use a sociological perspective to analyze law.
• You should show that you have read and can apply one of the socio-legal theorists to your chosen example.
• You should define “law on the books” and “law in action” in your own words somewhere (the introduction is often a good place, but it might fit better elsewhere)
•You should show that you can apply the concepts “law on the books” and “law in action” to analyze a specific example of law.
You do not need to label each of your answers as A, B, C, etc. In fact, it is better if you do not because your essay will flow more smoothly. However, be sure to cover each of those topics.
How I Will Grade This Assignment
• You must show that you have done the relevant readings, followed class discussions and lectures, and can analyze ideas from these readings in your own words.
• It is especially important that you use your own language when you write your answers. I will deduct points if you quote course readings without proper citation.
• Your assignment should be well written and well organized. If it is not clear and easy for me to read, you will lose points.
Tips for This Assignment
• Try rewriting parts of the questions as the beginning of some of your sentences. This is a trick for ensuring that you are answering the questions asked. (You can use this trick throughout this and other courses!) This way, you can be more confident that you are completing the assignment properly.
• You want to write in a way that is neutral and analytical. You should not sound like you are taking a moral position. Avoid stating that one of view of the law is better than another.
• Be sure to include an introduction (which should tell the reader the topics that your essay covers and any important themes) and conclusion (which can do various things: summarize one or two key points, reflect on the ideas you have written about, identify other similar manifestations of law, and/or identify limitations or especially compelling points in the course material). Those paragraphs can be brief.
• This assignment will take some time. Be sure that you save time to edit your writing so you can work on things like organization, grammar, and appropriate word choices.