n South African Law Journal - Is law able to transform society?

Volume 127, Issue 1
  • ISSN : 0258-2503
  • E-ISSN: 1996-2177



This article questions to what extent official state law may be used to steer or change a society in a particular way. A number of overlapping themes, all sharing the same pessimism about the potential role of law in transforming society, are discussed. The themes include the following: it is a complex task to use the law as an agent of change; changes in law in one field may have unforeseen (and perhaps unwanted) consequences in other fields; changes in the law may have unintended consequences because any given society consists of various individuals faced with various choices, and the impact of law on these individuals will be varied and almost impossible to control or predict; the to-be-solved problem is often inadequately grasped; changes in law must or should follow changes in society, or such changes may well be ineffective; law is autonomous and self-referential, which implies that (official, state-) law is separate from society and relatively immune to society's impulses; and it is very hard, if not impossible, to ascertain the existence or absence of a causal link between changes in law and changes in society. The argument is not that law has no impact in changing a society. The contention is more subtle - law's transformatory potential is often overestimated.

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