21A.219 | Spring 2003 | Undergraduate

Law and Society


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session

Film Screenings: 1 session / week, 1.5 hours / session

Course Description

Syllabus (PDF)

Law is a common and yet distinct aspect of everyday life in modern societies. This course examines the central features of law as a social institution and as a feature of popular culture. We will explore the nature of law as a set of social systems, central actors in the systems, legal reasoning, and the relationship of the legal form and reasoning to social change. The course emphasizes the relationship between the internal logic of legal devices and economic, political and social processes. Emphasis is placed upon developing a perspective which views law as a practical resource, a mechanism for handling the widest range of unspecified social issues, problems, and conflicts, and at the same time, as a set of shared representations and aspirations.
We will explore the range of experiences of law for its ministers (lawyers, judges, law enforcement agents and administrators) as well as for its supplicants (citizens, plaintiffs, defendants). We will examine how law is mobilized and deployed by professionals and ordinary citizens. We cannot cover all aspects of the legal system, nor focus on all the different actors. A set of topics has been selected to develop understanding of the situational and systemic demands within which actors in the legal system operate and perform their roles; at the same time, we will try to discover systematic patterns in the uses and consequences of law. Throughout the course there is concern for understanding what we mean by legality and the rule of law.

Abel, Richard L., ed. The Law and Society Reader. New York: New York University Press, 1995.

Burnett, D. Graham. A Trial by Jury. New York: Vintage Books, 2002.

Carter, Leif, and Tom Burke. Reason in Law. 6th ed. New York: Longman, 2001.

Ewick, Patricia, and Susan S. Silbey. The Common Place of Law: Stories From Everyday Life (Language and Legal Discourse). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Harr, Jonathan. A Civil Action. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.

Sutton, John. Law/Society: Origins, Interactions, and Change. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge, 2001.

Recommended Books on Writing

Cuba, Lee. A Short Guide to Writing About Social Science. 4th ed. New York: Longman, 2002.

Strunk, William, and E.B. White. The Elements of Style. 4th ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1999.

Course Requirements and Expectations

  1. Reading, film viewing, and class participation. The most basic requirement for this course is that you come to class prepared to participate. Most often, I will lecture, but there will be times when the learning in class will depend on your participation. Generally, you will find the lectures more informative and interesting, and your participation in class discussion more productive for you and your classmates, if you have read the materials before hand. Each week, I will collect your notes on at least 2 readings. I will assess your notes in an effort to gauge your progress and involvement. If you hand in all notes and they are satisfactory, you will receive full credit for them. With each assignment missed, you will lose a percentage point. There are no make ups. Several films are essential to the course material and will be screened once a week for class discussion the following week. Thus, students need to be prepared to attend 2-4 mandatory film viewings. (10% of grade)

  2. Three short papers. In addition to attendance, participation in class discussion, and reading, you are expected to complete three short, 5-6 page papers. Each paper will analyze a film (chosen from a list provided by your instructor) to illustrate how some aspect of the law or legal system works. Instructions for written assignments will be distributed in class and are available on the web site. (50% of grade)

  3. Mid-term exam. (20% of grade)

  4. Final paper. Students will select one of the three short papers to revise and expand for a final paper. (20% of grade)

All papers will be graded on the basis of mechanics (spelling and grammar) and good argumentative writing skills (clarity, conciseness, evidence). We will go over in class what counts as good argumentative writing, and, in addition, you should consult Cuba, Writing about Social Science for general instructions on writing social science papers, and Strunk and White, Elements of Style, for the mechanics of good writing.

Additional Helpful Hints

Here is a set of instructions for different ways of reading, with suggestions about how to work through heavy reading assignments. (PDF)

Keep a copy for yourself of all work submitted for this course.

If you are going to miss a class, make sure to ask someone to bring your assignment in for you. Two unexcused absences will lower your grade by 1/2 a grade. For example, with two unexcused absences your grade will drop from a B to a B-, with four unexcused absences your grade will drop from a B to a C+.

Finally, it is always helpful to contact the instructor if you are having difficulty completing the work assigned, understanding the assignments (reading or written assignments), or the class lectures. I am most accessible.

NOTE: MIT Criteria for HASS CI Subjects. Communication intensive subjects in the humanities, arts, and social sciences should require at least 20 pages of writing divided among 3-5 assignments. Of these 3-5 assignments, at least one should be revised and resubmitted. HASS CI subjects should further offer students substantial opportunity for oral expression, through presentations, student-led discussion, or class participation.

Course Info

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