by Kitty Calavita. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010. 192pp. Cloth. $45.00. ISBN: 9780226089966. Paper $15.00. ISBN: 9780226089973.

Reviewed by Salmon A. Shomade, Department of Political Science, University of New Orleans. Email: sshomade [at]


Inasmuch as “Law and Society” (L&S) as a discipline has been around for a while, it is not understood by many people whose lives are severely touched by the connection between the law that governs their lives and the societies that they are part of. Whereas several authors have attempted to enlighten the everyday person on the meaning of this seemingly accessible (yet minimally understood) academic field, very few have succeeded. Kitty Calavita should be added to this short list of successors. In INVITATION TO LAW & SOCIETY: AN INTRODUCTION TO THE STUDY OF REAL LAW, Calavita weaves together results of highly-regarded empirical researches by leading scholars with real-life examples to lucidly explain some of the divisive social issues confronting us in today’s world. Written with the aim to demonstrate how the law is omnipresent in our daily lives and how it touches upon controversial matters, Calavita employs a friendly and witty conversational tone that any reader can easily follow.

The author in the introductory chapter readily admits, “This is not meant to be a comprehensive overview or textbook introduction to law and society” (p.1). In these early pages, Calavita contends that she heavily relies on her professional background in sociology and on her primary English language in selecting works for her illustrations. Acknowledging these biases, Calavita notes that scholarship in related L&S fields such as political science, economics, and other non-sociological fields, as well as works written in the non-English language, are less represented in her presentations. This disclaimer about the book’s limitation is one that the author repeats at other times in this first chapter, throughout the book, and in the concluding chapter. Nonetheless, Calavita believes that this “limitation will be [the book’s] strength, as an accessible and concise presentation of a way of thinking about law” (p.2). She surmises, “What I am after here is a composite picture, a gestalt of a way of thinking, not a comprehensive inventory. I am treating this as a conversation – albeit a one-sided one – and will keep you, the reader, in my mind’s eye at all times. Partly in the interests of accessibility and a free-flowing conversation, I have sacrificed theoretical inclusiveness and instead provide many concrete examples and anecdotes from everyday life” (p.2).

Later in this introduction, Calavita contrasts jurisprudential view of law as one “that takes place inside the box of legal logic [while L&S] takes exactly the opposite approach – it examines the influence on law of forces outside the box” (p.4, emphasis provided). She adds: “Because not only are law and [*74] society interconnected, they are not really separate entities at all. From the [L&S] perspective, law is everywhere, not just in Supreme Court pronouncements or congressional statutes . . . Law so infuses daily life, is so much part of the mundane machinery that makes social life possible, that ‘law’ and ‘society’ are almost redundant. Far from magisterial or above-the-fray, law is marked by all the frailties and hubris of humankind” (p.5). She ends this opening chapter by summarizing the contents of the book’s remaining seven chapters.

In Chapter 2, Calavita employs the empirical works of many intellectuals, philosophers, and other sociologists to showcase methodically that “law in both its particulars and its generalities is contoured to society – a law and society insight that shakes to its very foundations the myth of law as transcendent, natural, or divinely inspired” (p.29). For example, she invokes the scholarship of social theorists as Henry Maine, Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx, and Max Weber to stress that legal systems simultaneously develop with socioeconomic systems while changing form and turning more complex over time. She cites other researchers that have found that law helps shape the contours of society and economic base. Later in this chapter, Calavita calls our attention to the difficulty of defining law and argues that depicting law as a set of written rules makes that definition culturally biased and inapplicable to non-Western societies. Instead, she claims, “[S]ocial form and legal form tend to converge with types of law corresponding to the societies they are embedded in” (p.26). She concludes the chapter by noting that it is misleading to refer to “a legal profession,” and “the legal profession(s) and legal practice, like law itself are both constituted by and in turn help constitute the surrounding social, political, and economic landscape” (p.29).

Pervasiveness of law in everyday life is the focus of Chapter 3. Calavita argues that law is everywhere in the society. Once again relying on results from empirical researches, the author contends, “[L&S] scholars find law even when there are no traces of formal law” (p.33). She adds that law shapes how we live, talk, and think. Invoking the works of Critical Race Theory and Feminist Theory scholars, Calavita explains that racial classification and sexual identification are legal constructions. Citing Antonio Gramsci’s description of “hegemony” as “the power to shape reality without calling attention to itself,” the author notes, “Contemporary [L&S] scholars point out that law is hegemonic because not only does it shape how we live, but it gives the shape of our lives a taken-for-grantedness” (p.37). However, as other L&S scholars have concluded using the concept of “legal consciousness,” “people also have the capacity to resist, rebel, and at least temporarily subvert that hegemony” (p.45). Calavita surmises that equally as law pervasiveness, legal consciousness (which L&S scholars have deduced as starting in early childhood) is everywhere, thus leading to the misunderstanding that the American society is too litigious. She concludes, “Litigiousness is not the same thing as the pervasiveness of law, but the entrenched myth of American litigiousness provides a powerful example of the cultural, ideological, and [*75] economic moorings of legal consciousness” (p.49, emphasis provided).

Calavita expands her focus on Critical Race Theory in Chapter 4 and describes a range of scholarship that dissects the concept of race. In this chapter entitled “The Color of Law,” the author traces how the notion of racial differences has been used to justify shoddy scientific theories of immigrant inferiority and modern-day racial profiling, among others. She explains that without L&S scholars seriously scrutinizing the concept of race, focusing on its different aspects, and employing different methodologies, a pseudo-scientific theory such as “feeblemindedness theory” (which was the basis for defective public policies on eugenics, immigration restrictions, and criminal justice practices for several decades) would not have been ultimately dismissed. Calavita argues that law has been historically instrumental in constructing categories of race and their meanings, but Critical Race Theory scholarship (under the aegis of L&S) has led to the demystification of such categorization and shown race as a social construction.

In Chapter 5, the author focuses on legal pluralism and provides several examples of studies that show how multiple legal systems operate simultaneously. Using the U.S. federal system (which encompasses the interaction of federal, state, and local laws) as an example of legal pluralism at work, Calavita explains how the system resolves legal issues as varied as minimum wage, jurisdiction, gun control, and death penalty, to name a few. She also mentions international issues such as “dumping” and “female genital cutting” to further demonstrate how legal pluralism manifests on the global stage. Throughout the chapter, she credits L&S scholars as helping us make sense of legal pluralism.

Calavita relies less on results of other scholars’ empirical research in Chapter 6. In this chapter, she personally engages the gaps often found between the “law-on-the-books” and the “law-in-action.” She employs several powerful (and at times, disturbing) instances of how certain laws such as vagrancy and loitering laws are used in practice to foster unequal treatment of U.S. minorities. But in providing many other examples of gaps that are not result of racial, class, or political biases, Calavita argues, “Sometimes such law-on-the-books and law-in-action gaps are the results not so much of class or race biases . . . but of structural dilemmas faced by policymakers and enforcement agents” (p.101). Nonetheless, the author contends that L&S scholars are tasked with the responsibility to “understand the gap, because it can provide [L&S scholars] with clues not just about the workings of law but about the workings of society itself” (p.114, emphasis provided).

In Chapter 7, Calavita returns to utilizing results of leading scholars’ empirical research to tackle the potential and limits of law in advancing change. Whether in discussing Marc Galanter’s treatise on courts’ tendencies to favor the “haves” or Ran Hirschl’s work on the antidemocratic quality of some South African constitutional courts, Calavita remains unabashedly progressive in her analysis. Notwithstanding her partisanship (clearly evident in this [*76] chapter), she also presents research of L&S scholars who have spoken more optimistically about law’s potential. The book concludes in Chapter 8, and the author does a fantastic job in summarizing the key themes presented at the beginning of and throughout the book.

Another well-regarded sociological perspective on the interplay between L&S is Steven Vago’s LAW AND SOCIETY. Similar to Vago, Calavita utilizes the treatises of intellectuals such as Maine, Durkheim, and Weber to help define law and its influence on societies. There are other similarities as well. However, Calavita’s book differs from Vago’s because she concentrates on specific social issues to explain the interconnectedness between L&S. And unlike Cynthia Cates’ and Wayne McIntosh’s LAW AND THE WEB OF SOCIETY which provides Internet links for readers to do additional subject matter research, Calavita’s book does not refer Internet links. Nonetheless, the author offers a reference list full of influential scholars that an interested reader can utilize for additional insight. Furthermore, although INVITATION TO LAW & SOCIETY is less comprehensive in the number of L&S subfields covered than those in Carroll Seron’s THE LAW AND SOCIETY CANON, the book presents more recent L&S issues such as Critical Race Theory and Critical Legal Study either missing or not sufficiently covered in THE LAW AND SOCIETY CANON.

INVITATION TO LAW & SOCIETY is another title in “The Chicago Series in Law and Society,” edited by John M. Conley and Lynn Mather. It is a well-written book especially for those who are interested in the sociological aspect of L&R. Even for those readers with other interests, it is worth reading as it expertly captures social issues and connects them to that thing we call “the Law.” As Calavita herself asserts in identifying the book’s audience, the book “is meant for undergraduate students and their professors, but it is also written for my lawyer friend who can’t figure us [L&S scholars] out, for my taxi driver, and even for an occasional colleague, because it is always entertaining to see others attempt to describe what we do” (p.2). Given the witty and friendly conversational tone the author adopts throughout the book, I agree that the book is accessible for everyone. Admittedly, some readers might initially struggle with Chapter 2 because it reads more like a literature review of an academic journal article at the beginning, but once the reader reaches the summation point all becomes well. In addition, Calavita could have been more forceful in reminding us at the end of the later chapters that the L&S discipline has been instrumental in both explaining the problems and finding solutions to some of the social issues confronting us. Finally, although the book is mainly free of typographical errors, this reviewer wonders if the author’s contemporaneous spirit makes her spell plebeian as “plebian” on page 113. Despite these minor complaints, I enthusiastically recommend this book to any reader interested in understanding the basic connection between the law and our society. [*77]

Cates, Cynthia L. and Wayne V. McIntosh. 2001. LAW AND THE WEB OF SOCIETY. Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press.

Seron, Carroll (ed.). 2006. THE LAW AND SOCIETY CANON. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Co.

Vago, Steven. 2008. LAW AND SOCIETY. 9th Edition. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall.

© Copyright 2011 by the author, Salmon A. Shomade.