The study of law is concerned with the body of rules a country or community recognises as regulating the behaviour of its citizens. Its emergence is shaped by history, culture and social context. The discipline covers laws on a range of subjects, including criminal and civil law, property and company law, family and labour law, as well as the major debates in legal theory. Oxford Reference offers a comprehensive collection of 34,000 concise and in-depth entries on law, written by experts for researchers at every level.
The earliest definitions of law focused on the king or sovereign’s power to decree and enforce rules for their citizens, with a central authority imposing order and control over a territory. This approach was reflected in the development of monarchy and autocracy. Other approaches focused on the morality of a given set of rules, for example Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian theories or Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s concept of natural law. These concepts were influenced by religion and often imply the unalterability of God’s word, and rely on further human elaboration through interpretation (Judaism: Halakha; Islam: Sharia), Qiyas (reasoning by analogy) and Ijma (consensus).
Another approach to law focuses on how people act in society, and how this can be described using scientific observations. These types of laws are usually based on mathematics, and may describe general trends or expected behaviors rather than being absolutes. Examples include the Titius-Bode law of planetary positions, Zipf’s law of linguistics, and Moore’s law of technological growth.
These laws are a form of behavioural science, and have the potential to shape human behaviour and influence the ways in which we think about legal issues. They have also provided a basis for the development of other types of laws, such as those on taxation and financial regulation.
Laws are an essential part of a modern society and must be carefully designed to ensure their effectiveness. However, it is also important to consider the ways in which they impact upon other aspects of our lives, and the consequences of changing the law.
Laws are a complex issue and can be controversial. For example, there is a lively debate about the role of judges and whether they should be above politics or not. Then there are questions about what counts as a crime, and the extent to which legal systems reflect a particular culture or ideology. Moreover, some people believe that laws are being used to control societies by controlling freedoms and by oppressing minorities or political opponents. However, it is possible to argue that many of the problems we face in society are not caused by laws themselves, but by the ways they are created and enforced. This is sometimes called ‘the problem of bad laws’.