Skip to main content

How Autonomous is Law?

  • Location: Public Lecture, Law and Society Research Group, University of Sydney
  • Research area: Legal history

Nov 2007, Christopher L. Tomlins

Socio-legal studies forever debates whether law is the product of internally-constructed rules, procedures and rationales or an effect of external social forces and interests. Traditionally the debate pitted “formalists” who defended law’s autonomy against “instrumentalists” who claimed law was a creature of exogenous circumstance. The debate was transformed in the later twentieth century by fundamental refinements in Marxism, which produced accounts of law’s “relative autonomy,” followed by innovations in critical social theory that held all discourses (including law) were epistemically autonomous. Other parallel formulations claimed not only that law was autonomous but that law was in fact constitutive of the very social circumstances once held to determine its development. This paper reviews the highlights of the debate while adopting a perspective outside it. I treats the autonomy question as relational – if law is autonomous it must still be autonomous in relation to something – and ask in relation to what? The debate assumes the answer is “society,” so I ask how the social become law’s relational other, and what other relationalities might be brought into play

Site design by Webitects

© 2022 American Bar Foundation (
750 North Lake Shore Drive
Chicago, IL 60611-4403
(312) 988-6500
Contact Us
Contact the Fellows
Media Contacts
Privacy policy
Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in ABF publications are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Bar Foundation or the American Bar Association. The AMERICAN BAR FOUNDATION, ABF and related seal trademarks as used by the American Bar Foundation are owned by the American Bar Association and used under license.