A different legal science - German sociology of law after 1945

Research Project

In German-speaking countries, the ‘science’ of law (Rechtswissenschaft) is primarily understood as a normative practice whose primary task – alongside the training of legal personnel – is the production of practice-relevant legal doctrine (Rechtsdogmatik). At the same time, an alternative vision of the study of law as a science has existed at the latest since the establishment of sociology as a differentiated epistemic practice in German-speaking countries at the beginning of the 20th century. This focused on the empirical investigation of legal phenomena in the social world and thus on objects of knowledge that were observed in a methodically controlled manner rather than normatively defined. The relationship between these two very different scientific research interests – which has always been asymmetrical due to the dominance of legal dogmatics – has been characterised by both cooperation and competition over time. In German-speaking countries, two catchwords dominated the discussion for a long time. The advocates of Rechtstatsachenforschung (empirical legal research) saw their task as providing social science findings for an appropriate application of the law. In contrast, Rechtssoziologie (sociology of law) wanted to focus on law as a social phenomenon within the framework of a comprehensive social theory, without necessarily producing knowledge relevant to decision-making.

Particularly in the wake of social criticism after 1968, based on or inspired by Marxist thought, a ‘critical’ legal theory and sociology of law in the Federal Republic of Germany set out to not only describe the law differently from Rechtsdogmatik. A group of lawyers and sociologists also wanted to change the law in terms of content and institutions, for example, by reforming legal education. The project failed not only due to resistance from the traditional legal profession. The project of institutionalizing ‘Rechtssoziologie’ never recovered from this conflict-ridden phase. The renaissance of empirical research on law in the last two decades has therefore partly taken place under a different name (‘interdisciplinary legal research’), with reference to international role models (‘law and society’) or with recourse to factual research interests such as ‘empirical legal studies’ (often inspired by legal economics).

Only recently have the initial steps toward the historicisation of the history of legal sociology in Germany after 1945 been undertaken as well as the first theoretical and discourse-historical works on the history of legal sociology made available. However, there is little research on the history of actors and institutions in the sociology of law. Moreover, this history needs to be placed within the larger context of the history and sociology of science as well as take international interdependencies into account. This research gap is being addressed in a long-term research project based on archival research as well as methods of oral history and digital humanities. It builds on the results and methods from my other projects (Socio-legal Trajectories in Germany and the UK; Legal Theory Knowledge Graph). The research project assumes that the history of legal sociology in Germany can only be understood in its embedding in the history of German jurisprudence. The focus is therefore on the struggle between normativity and empiricism, which manifested itself both on a theoretical level and in institutional disputes.

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