21A.219 | Spring 2003 | Undergraduate

Law and Society


In his 1987 presidential address to the Law and Society Association, Stewart Macaulay argues that schools, spectator sports, and the entertainment industry present images of law that inform our legal consciousness. More recently, Sherwin (2000) writes, in When the Law Goes Pop, that not only legal consciousness but the very procedures and practices of law are being shaped by the representations of law in popular media.  

I would like you to write three papers about the ways in which law is practiced and the ways those practices are represented in popular film. Each paper should be 6-8 pages long, drawing upon images from the film you choose as your focus, and relying on the scholarly writing about legal practices that are required for this course for analytic categories and perspectives. For each assignment, you will analyze one feature-length film in which law is a central character. You will support your analyses with references and illusions from the readings, using the reading materials to illuminate the subject of the film. Each paper will have a distinct question or focus.

Mechanical and Technological Details

  1. Film availability. The films for the course are on reserve in Hayden library. We have limited copies of each film. You will have to share with others in the class. Thus, it is important that you plan your time, well in advance of the due date of the paper. As the due date approaches, several students will want to be using the film. I will not provide extensions because of this. You need to organize yourself in advance. We will, however, distribute a list in class so that the available titles are distributed across the students in the class.

  2. Video digitizing, clipping and embedding. Instead of spending your time, composing energies, and paper on descriptions of the film or portions of the film, you will “clip” portions of the video into your paper text, using specific hardware and software for this purpose. You will submit the “paper” on a zip disk with the clips, and on paper. We will read your paper on the disk and on paper.

  3. Workshops on video digitizing, clipping and embedding. My assistant will provide instruction on video digitizing, clipping and embedding. You should find this quite easy and fun.
    1 day after Lecture #4: 1 hour
    Lecture #5: 1 hour
    Lecture #6: 1 hour

    Guide to Video Digitizing (PDF)

NOTICE: You must plan ahead to check out the films and you will have to plan ahead to use the digitizing equipment. It will be oversubscribed! Do not wait until the last moment to do this. I will not give extensions because of this limitation in resources. You must plan ahead.

Additional Resources

  1. Seron and Silbey, " Profession, Science, and Culture: An Emergent Canon of Law and Society Research" is a synopsis of the classical literature in law and society.  If you are looking for additional materials on some aspect of the law relating to the film you are analyzing, you may find this article helpful in identifying appropriate literature.
  2. I also recommend visiting the home page of sociologist Mathieu Deflem: http://www.cas.sc.edu/socy/faculty/deflem/. Once there, click on “I Confess” Visions of Guilt and Innocence in the Films of Alfred Hitchcock. Deflem’s sociological analysis of the images of guilt and innocence as presented in Hitchcock films will help you further understand how to assess the images of law presented in your chosen film. http://www.cas.sc.edu/socy/faculty/deflem/Hit/ahitch1.htm
  3. I also recommend an article by Jessica Silbey, “Patterns of Courtroom Justice” in Journal of Law and Society Volume 28, Number 1, March 2001. That issue contains additional articles.
  4. Please meet with me or the writing tutor for this course, to discuss any potential problems you are having. Furthermore, I recommend that you discuss the films and the readings, lectures, etc. with your classmates. It is the very best way to develop your ideas and master the materials.

Paper Topics, Format and Style

Your paper should begin with an introduction that clearly states the title of the film you have chosen to analyze and provides an overview of the paper. The second section of the paper should briefly summarize the film so that you explain the central story and the main characters. This need not be long, just the plot and central themes. The third and most important section of the paper involves an in-depth analysis of (paper #1) organization and structure of criminal or civil justice system as portrayed in the film and scholarly literature, (paper #2) the dynamics (constraints and opportunities) of practice for the legal professional, and (paper #3) how the portraits of law vary within the film or the law creates (or fails to create) social change. Be sure to support your analysis with specific examples drawn from the film itself and to link your arguments back to the ideas course readings and assignments.

Papers should be 5 to 6 pages in length. All papers should have page numbers! Include proper citations and references following the format in Cuba, Writing About Social Science.
Papers submitted after the due date will be considered late and receive a grade reduction.

Paper #1: The Criminal Justice System/The Civil Justice System
due 3 days before Lecture #9

(a) Using one of the following films as data and illustrative examples, write an analysis of some aspect of the criminal justice system discussed in class or in assigned readings. In other words, view the film through the lens of the materials provided in class and in reading assignments.

Law and Order (documentary by Frederick Wiseman)
Onion Field
Thin Blue Line
And Justice for All
Criminal Justice

(b) Using one of the following films as data and illustrative examples, write an analysis of some aspect of the civil litigation system discussed in class or in assigned readings. In other words, view the film through the lens of the materials provided in class and in reading assignments.

Sweet Hereafter
Class Action
Erin Brokovich

Paper #2: The Legal Profession
due in Lecture #13

How is the practice of lawyering constrained by the organization of work, stratification of the profession (differential status, work, and rewards), and necessities of earning a living?

(Warning: This includes a rape and may be unpleasant to watch)
Jagged Edge
Anatomy of a Murder
Reversal of Fortune
The Verdict

Paper #3: Rule of Law, Legal Culture, Social Change
due in Lecture #19

a) How does law work to foster or impede social change, as illustrated in this film, or

b) Ewick and Silbey suggest that the rule of law is sustained by its complexity, that is, that American culture represents the law in diverse ways. People express this diversity, Ewick and Silbey claim, in terms of three narratives or stories of law they name, “Before the Law,” “With the Law,” and “Against the Law.” Your task is to discuss the social construction of legality in one of these films, using the analytical categories “Before the Law,” “With the Law,” and “Against the Law”.

Inherit the Wind
The People v. Larry Flint
12 Angry Men
The Verdict
From the Hip

Final Paper

Your final paper will be a revision of one of the first three papers. The particular paper and forms of revision are to be determined in consultation with your professor and writing fellow.

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2003
Learning Resource Types
Lecture Notes
Written Assignments