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Abstract

Legal scholarship is abuzz with research on social norms--nonlegal rules of behavior that are enforced by private individuals through social sanctions such as gossip and ostracism. Upon a moment's reflection it is easy to see that social norms affect virtually all of our behavior, from mundane matters of personal hygiene to practical matters, including business negotiations and dispute resolution. In addition to affecting our behavior, social norms tend to become internalized as standards of selfassessment, which means that our thoughts are equally affected by social norms. Until the last decade or so legal scholars devoted little attention to social norms, holding fast to the longstanding assumption (among legal theorists) that law is the dominant constraint on human behavior. Recent scholarship casts doubt on this assumption of "legal centrism" by pointing out that social norms have a more profound affect on our lives than law, at least if we understand law in the narrow sense of formal rules backed by the state's coercive power. In fact, empirical research suggests that many people (perhaps most people) lack a working knowledge of law and instead find themselves "opting out" of the legal system by resolving disputes according to social norms. Within the legal academy there is a growing body of research on social norms (some might say that it has become almost a cottage industry), and in this paper I want to raise some questions about the fundamental orientation of this scholarship.

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