Sociology of Law

Sociology of Law


Relatively few UK sociologists work on the study of law and society. Very crudely, this deals with everything to do with the law that is not criminal, although there is some overlap in areas like regulation. The sociology of law also tends to give equal weight to the power of law to create order in human affairs as well as to control disorder. Contracts, for example, provide a way to limit the uncertainty and instability of language.

I stumbled into this field because the Oxford Centre for Socio-Legal Studies wanted to develop some research on court decision-making in cases of child abuse and neglect, led by a family lawyer, John Eekelaar. My PhD research on health visitors had given me a detailed knowledge of the agencies with whom the legal system interacted in these circumstances. Together, John and I developed one of the largest ethnographic studies ever carried out in the UK, tracing child protection cases from the initial sifting of families by frontline workers in various health and social service organizations through to the disposals reached in court hearings. In contrast to many activist claims at the time, we showed that the system had a strong bias against compulsory interventions, like the removal of children. This reflected the fundamental tension between child protection and family privacy at the heart of liberal democratic ideals. Our work had a strong impact on the Children Act 1989 and key concepts like the ‘rule of optimism’ continue to be employed – often inaccurately – by reports on the deaths of children as a result of maltreatment.

At the end of this project, I became involved in three other lines of work that occupied me for much of the next decade: a conversation analytic study of the emerging practice of divorce mediation; a study of asbestos disease litigation, led by WLF Felstiner of the American Bar Foundation; and a programme of studies on law and health care. The latter included projects on medical negligence, with Paul Fenn, which extended my investigations of the law of tort that had begun with the asbestos project, and on professional licensing and accountability in health care. There were also many opportunities to learn from colleagues, particularly in the projects on regulatory agencies, inspection and enforcement that were also being carried out at the time.

Sample Publications

‘The Jasmine Beckford Affair’, Modern Law Review, 1986, 49; 4: 489-507.

(R. Dingwall and P. Fenn) ‘A respectable profession?  Sociological and economic perspectives on the regulation of professional services’, International Review of Law and Economics, 1987, 7; 1: 51-64.

(D. Greatbatch and R. Dingwall) ‘Selective facilitation: some preliminary observations on a strategy used by divorce mediators’, Law and Society Review, 1989, 23; 4: 61341.  Reprinted in abridged and edited form in Family and Conciliation Courts Review, 1990, 28; 1: 5364.  Reprinted in C. MenkelMeadow, ed., Mediation: Theory, Policy and Practice, Aldershot, Ashgate, (2001).

(D. Greatbatch and R. Dingwall) ‘Argumentative talk in divorce mediation sessions’, American Sociological Review, 1997, 62; 1: 151170.

(D. Greatbatch and R. Dingwall) ‘The marginalization of domestic violence in divorce mediation’, International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family 1999, 13; 2: 17490.

(R. Dingwall, T. Durkin, P. Pleasence, W.L.F. Felstiner and R. Bowles) ‘Firm handling: the litigation strategies of defence lawyers in personal injury cases’, Legal Studies 2000, 20; 1: 118.

(R. Dingwall and E.Cloatre) ‘Vanishing Trials: An English Perspective’, Journal of Dispute Resolution, 2006; 1: 51-70.