For decades now law and society theorists have been preoccupied with attempts to explain the relationship between legal and social change in the context of development of legal institutions. They viewed the law both as an independent and dependent variable (cause and effect) in society and emphasized the interdependence of the law with other social systems.
In its most concrete sense, social change means large numbers of people are engaging in group activities and relationships that are different from those in which they or their parents engaged in previously. Thus, social change means modifications in the way people work, rear a family, educate their children, govern them, and seek ultimate meaning in life. In addition to law and social change there are many other mechanisms of change, such as technology, ideology, competition, conflict, political and economic factors, and structural strains.

Reciprocity between law and social change

At the beginning of industrialization and urbanization in Europe, Bentham expected legal reforms to respond quickly to new social needs and to restructure society. He freely gave advice to the leaders of the French revolution, because he believed that countries at a similar stage of economic development needed similar remedies for their common problems. However, Savigny believed that only fully developed popular customs could form the basis of legal change. As customs grow out of the habits and beliefs of specific people, rather than expressing those of an abstract humanity, legal changes are codifications of customs, and they can only be national and never universal. There are two contrasting views on this relationship:

  1. Law is determined by the sense of justice and the moral sentiments of the population, and legislation can only achieve results by staying relatively close to the prevailing social norms.
  2. Law and especially legislation, is a vehicle through which a programmed social evolution can be brought about. In general, a highly urbanized and industrialized society like the US law does play a large part in social change, and vice versa, at least much more than is the case in traditional societies or in traditional sociological thinking. [eg. In the domain of intrafamily relations, urbanization, with its small apartments and crowded conditions, has lessened the desirability of three-generation families in a single household. This social change helped to establish social security laws that in turn helped generate changes in the labor force and in social institutions for the aged.