Socio‐legal Studies in France: Beyond the Law Faculty

AuthorStewart Field,Renaud Colson
Date01 June 2016
Publication Date01 June 2016
ISSN: 0263-323X, pp. 285±311
Socio-legal Studies in France: Beyond the Law Faculty
Renaud Colson* and Stewart Field**
This article is the third in an occasional series dealing with the
development, current status, and future of socio-legal studies in
selected countries. It follows articles by Kim Economides (Aotearoa/
New Zealand) and Harry Arthurs and Annie Bunting (Canada).
In this article we argue that in France one can identify work that
corresponds to the key strands of socio-legal research in Anglo-
American societies but that `socio-legal' as a category of research and
scholarship does not have the presence it has in the United Kingdom.
French law faculties continue to be strongly shaped by a traditional
disciplinary orthodoxy rooted in a highly and distinctively structured
form of doctrinal analysis. In the first part, we explain the relatively
limited presence of socio-legal studies in French law faculties in terms
of the historical and institutional mechanisms by which disciplinary
closure has been created and maintained around traditional
orthodoxies. But in the second part we will trace the presence ±
predominantly outside law faculties ± of significant fragments of socio-
legal practice in the scholarship of law and allied disciplines.
Setting out to explain the presence ± or in this case, the relative absence ± of
the `socio-legal' in a particular jurisdiction requires some attempt to set out
an understanding of what remains a notoriously malleable concept. This is
all the more important given that one striking difference between France and
the United Kingdom is the very absence of a body of knowledge explicitly
Âde droit et des sciences politiques de Nantes, Chemin de la
Censive-du-Tertre ± BP 81307, 44313 Nantes Cedex 3, France
** Cardiff Law School, Cardiff University, Museum Ave, Cardiff CF10 3AX,
ß2016 The Author. Journal of Law and Society ß2016 Cardiff University Law School
conceptualized and character ized in terms of the label `socio-l egal'.
Furthermore, in Anglo-American scholarship, there are not only diverse
ways of characterizing the `socio-legal' but there are tensions and even
contradictions at the heart of the concept which flow in part from different
ways of viewing its relationship to more traditional forms of legal scholar-
The `socio-legal' can be seen as a supplement or even complement to
the doctrinal analysis of primary legal sources that is made desirable ± or
indeed even necessary ± by the need to maintain law as a functioning social
institution (law in action) as opposed to pure text (law in books). Effective
decisions about legal reform may be seen to require some analysis of the
practical effects of law on society or parts of society and some analysis of the
social interests and claims in play. This is the kind of socio-legal work
sometimes associated with the term `law in context' and with the kind of
policy-oriented research based on empirical social science that is often
fostered and financed by governments.
But the rise of the `socio-legal' since the 1960s has also been associated
with various explicit and radical challenges to law as a social institution in
general and doctrinal analysis as a disciplinary practice in particular. The
influence of feminism, Marxism, and other forms of critical legal scholarship
has been profoundly felt in direct, frontal critique of traditional assumptions
about the autonomy of law and legal analysis. Indeed, some legal scholars
from these critical currents might eschew the label `socio-legal' exactly
because of its association with more reformist ambitions: they do not want to
see themselves as repointing the legal brickwork when the aim should be to
tear the house down. These different and contested ways of understanding
the `socio-legal' as either supplement or challenge to law as a discipline, are
reflected in different relationships between law and other disciplines.
Sometimes, work drawing on other disciplines may complement and
sustain the dominant paradigm (for example, certain kinds of philosophy of
law or legal history). But insights drawn from sociology and other disciplines
(including certain strands of philosophy and legal history) have also been
key parts of the critique of traditional conceptions of the autonomy of law as
a discipline and of the legitimacy of law as a social institution purporting to
depersonalize the exercise of power. This critical edge, drawing on a range
of disciplines, while by no means a dominant force in socio-legal studies, has
been a key element of an increasingly pluralist approach to legal scholarship
in Anglo-American societies. What we want to do in this analysis of the
1 The literature on the nature of the `socio-legal' is too extensive even to cite
conveniently here. But some references can be found in previous reviews in this
series in the Journal of Law and Society. Both articles adopted ± as we do here ±
very broad-church definitions of the concept: K. Economides, `Socio-legal studies in
Aotearoa/New Zealand (2014) 41 J. of Law and Society 257; H. Arthurs and A.
Bunting, `Socio-legal Scholarship in Canada: A Review of the Field' (2014) 41 J. of
Law and Society 487.
ß2016 The Author. Journal of Law and Society ß2016 Cardiff University Law School

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