American Sociological Association

Sociology of Law Founding

Sociology of Law Founding


Dr. Joachim Savelsberg's portrait

Section for the Sociology of Law: Birth, Hopes and Safeguards



Joachim J. Savelsberg

Department of Sociology

University of Minnesota


The Section for the Sociology of Law was born in the early 1990s. Three colleagues, Terry Halliday, Kim Scheppele, and myself served as “midwives.” As it takes a village to raise a child, and as the interest was substantial, others soon joined into the effort.

Moving to the United States from my native Germany in 1989, I was struck by the absence of a Section for the Sociology of Law in the American Sociological Association. In 1991, I wrote a brief statement, in which I laid out some substantive and some institutional reasons why a Sociology of Law section would be a good idea. I paraphrase:

The American Sociological Association does not adequately institutionalize the sociology of law despite its central importance for the understanding of society, its subsystems, social action, culture, formal organizations, social structure and conflict, and social change. The last three Annual ASA Meetings offered only one session each on the sociology of law. Papers presented at sessions of the Section for Crime, Law, and Deviance almost exclusively dealt with issues of criminal behavior or criminal justice organization. At the same time, there is considerable interest in issues of law within the discipline. The ASA Guide to Graduate Departments documents more than 170 sociologists who indicate ‘law’ or some special type of law—excluding criminal law—as an area of specialization. The Law and Society Association’s membership directory lists about 120 members whose addresses are in sociology departments or who are known to us as sociologists. Together these two directories list more than 220 persons (there were overlaps) who document an interest in the sociology of law (Savelsberg 1991).

One year later the Section for the Sociology of Law was under way. Terry Halliday led the effort, and he became our first chair. Kim Scheppele coordinated our efforts with Jim Coleman (then the ASA president) and Felice Levine (then the ASA executive director) about how to get the section listed, registered and approved. She also conducted delicate negotiations with the crime/law/deviance section to demonstrate that we had no intention of upstaging or replacing them. Members of the initial Steering and By-laws committees included this trio and, I will have to trust my notes here, Donald Black, Lauren Edelman, Butler Jones, Bob Kidder, Rick Lempert, Setsuo Miyazawa, Frank Munger, Al Reiss, Robert Rosen, and Larry Ross. Once we got approvals all around and by-laws drafted, membership soared in the first year to enough to sustain the section.

Finding a home for the sociology of law within ASA, we had institutionalized a place where we would connect with other sub-sociologies such as sociological theory, organizations and occupations, gender, political, and medical. And we made it a principle from the beginning to co-sponsor sessions with other sections. We did not want to add just another niche, not contribute to growing intra-disciplinary boundaries (Vaughan 1999:310), but counteract, in one small area, the fizzling out at the edges that several scholars have diagnosed for competitive and decentralized fields like sociology (Fuchs 1993; Halliday 1992).

Such fizzling out had been advanced by the foundation of thematically specialized associations, in criminology the American Society of Criminology, in our field the Law & Society Association. Not to be misunderstood, meeting in cross-disciplinary settings avoids disciplinary narrowmindedness. Yet, it also entails the risk of separating members of disciplines from other disciplinary subareas. Craig Calhoun (1992) rightly observed that the foundation of such interdisciplinary programs holds the risk of creating new boundaries between academic fields rather than advancing exchange between disciplines.

Further, while the “pull of the policy audience” risks in socio-legal studies may not be as grave as elsewhere, law’s representation by a comparatively powerful legal profession in combination with its normative and interpretive logic—as opposed to socio-logic of our discipline—may at times overwhelm social science partners in a joint multi-disciplinary enterprise. Influence may occur directly through research funding or indirectly as academic institutions change their internal organization in response to government-induced demand for professional training. Wolf Heydebrand (1990) has argued that academic institutions have become increasingly responsive to such demands. We find this confirmed for criminology and criminal justice studies (e.g., Savelsberg, Cleveland and King 2004), where authors affiliated with criminology and criminal justice programs focus more strongly on topics and theories suggested by the state than authors from sociology programs (“program effects”), where articles based on funding provided by political agencies are more likely to relate to substantive and theoretical concerns articulated by the state (“funding effect”), and where the relationship between a changing ideological climate and criminological knowledge is almost fully explained through funding and program effects.

Again, law and society studies are not part of an organizational field with one dominant actor outside the world of scholarship as powerful and clearly defined as the criminal justice system. Yet, caution may be warranted nevertheless given the law and society studies’ closeness to the field of law, more prestigious than the social sciences, and to the legal profession and the state as producers of law, both obviously more powerful than social sciences. Encounters with the multi-disciplinary world of law and society studies will, of course, continue to provide us with challenges, stimulations, provocations, and exposures to the world of law. Institutionalizing the sociology of law, however, for example through the Sociology of Law section, may provide a safe haven to guard the conceptual, theoretical, and methodological integrity of the sociological endeavor and to secure continued exchange with other branches of sociology. Maybe its first quarter of a century has fulfilled some of these hopes and provided safeguards against the pull of the policy audience, the alienation from discipline and the splintering of from other specialties.


Calhoun, Craig. 1992. “Sociology, Other Disciplines, and the Project of a General Understanding of Social Life.” Pp. 137-196 in Sociology and Its Publics: The Forms and Fates of Disciplinary Organization, edited by Terence C. Halliday and Morris Janowitz. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Fuchs, Stephan. 1993. “A Sociological Theory of Scientific Change.” Social Forces 71:933-53.

Halliday, Terence C. 1992. “Introduction: Sociology’s Fragile Professionalism.” Pp. 3-42 in Sociology and Its Publics: The Forms and Fates of Disciplinary Organization, edited by Terence C. Halliday and Morris Janowitz. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Heydebrand, Wolf. 1990. “The Technocratic Organization of Academic Work.” Pp. 271-320 in Structures of Power and Constraint; Papers in Honor of Peter M. Blau, edited by Craig Calhoun, Marshall W. Meyer, and W. Richard Scott. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Savelsberg, Joachim J. 1991. “Statement: Reasons for the Creation of a Section for the Sociology of Law within the American Sociological Association.” Unpublished. 

Savelsberg, Joachim J., Lara L. Cleveland, and Ryan D. King. 2004. “Institutional Environments and Scholarly Work: American Criminology, 1951-1993.” Social Forces 82(4):1275-1302.

Vaughan, Diane. 1999. “Boundary Work: Levels of Analysis, the macro-Micro Link, and the Social Control of Organizations.” Pp. 291-321 in Social Science, Social Policy, and the Law, edited by Patricia Ewick, Robert A. Kagan, and Austin Sarat. New York: Russell Sage.