Skip to Main Content

The University of Tennessee

Political Science Department

Frequently Used Tools:

Welcome! » Law in American Society

Law in American Society

See Also:Scheb and Scheb, An Introduction to the American Legal System

American society is thoroughly imbued with law. We have developed an extremely elaborate and increasingly complex system to make, interpret and enforce the law. A large and ever-growing professional class is engaged in the practice of law. There are more lawyers per capita in the United States than in any other country in the world.  

As Tocqueville observed nearly two centuries ago, "There is hardly a political question in the United States, which does not sooner or later turn into a judicial one." Today American courts extend their reach into areas where judges historically feared to tread.  No significant activity, whether it be economic, political, social, educational, or even recreational, takes place in contemporary America without the involvement of lawyers.

Numerous academic institutions are devoted to teaching the law. There are thousands of publications dedicated to legal education, research and advocacy. Our mass media and popular culture reflect the social preoccupation with law, in that we are exposed to a steady barrage of books, films, newspaper articles, television shows and even radio programs dealing with the law. 

What are we to make of this preoccupation with law? Is it, as some say, a symptom of postmodern decadence?  Or is it the hallmark of a mature society, one that has learned to resolve conflict through a civilized process of argumentation, proof and negotiation?  Does the American legal system suffocate innovation, frustrate justice, undermine personal responsibility, and stifle progress as various critics have suggested? Or does it provide a semblance of order and cohesion as an increasingly diverse, dynamic and anomic society faces an increasingly uncertain future?  These are questions that would not interest most practitioners of the law.  But they are questions too important to be relegated to the speculations and ruminations of academicians.  All citizens have an interest, whether they realize it or not, in the functions of the legal system.  My goal in teaching students about law, courts and the judicial process  is to make them realize that fact.

John Scheb II
May 16, 2003