President's Report

Bringing social science perspectives to the law

Americans tend to think of the law as something that is confined to the courtroom or the halls of Congress.

But a closer look at our society reveals legal concepts have permeated almost all aspects of our everyday life – from the way we talk when we feel we’ve been wronged by a coworker or friend to the shows we watch on TV.

“It’s important to understand (the law) not as some special, separate, fenced-off part of the world,” Associate Professor of Law Eric Fink says. “It exists in the world so it makes sense that people might be influenced by legal ideas even when they’re home, interacting with their husband or wife, or when they are fishing or playing games.”

Fink uses social science theories to explain how courts behave. His scholarship touches on labor and employment law, online virtual games and the world of recreational fishing, just to name a few topics. While the latter two areas may not seem like typical places related to the law, Fink says there are a lot of rules that govern people’s behaviors in those areas that are worth studying. 

“People sometimes have disputes in those spaces that aren’t that different from the kinds of disputes that end up in court,” he says. “I’m interested in why people draw this distinction between legal rules and just rules of polite behavior or rules of customary roles, and how people manage these situations in ways that really aren’t all that different from the law.”

In the recreational fishing community, for instance, Fink discovered that people share and talk about acceptable customs – what kind of flies are appropriate, what materials should be used – as if these were laws. When someone doesn't follow the rules, the person is treated as a criminal by the rest of the community.

Fink says customs and traditions often shape the laws of a country and vice versa. He points to the changing environment around same-sex marriage in America. At an informal level, many gay people are forming relationships that look just like married relationships even without a marriage license. While some states are changing the law to reflect this shift, other states that do not see that as the norm (including North Carolina) are changing their laws to reinforce their existing customs.

Lawyers and legislators look at empirical research and social science when shaping policy, which is why Fink says it’s important for law students to always think about the larger picture – how to change rules and regulations at the local, state and national level for the betterment of the community – when dealing with individual cases.

“I want my students to understand the law in the book, but I also want them to understand that in their lives as lawyers they are not going to be just reading to somebody out of a book,” he says. “They are going to have real clients who are real people with real problems and the law may only partly address their problem, whether it’s an individual who is facing a criminal case or a felony law problem or a business that is facing a merger or an antitrust investigation. Having this broader social perspective they can serve their clients better.”

Fink has a bachelor's degree in sociology from The Johns Hopkins University, a master’s degree in sociology from the London School of Economics and a law degree from New York University School of Law. Before joining the Elon faculty in 2007, he taught legal writing at Stanford Law School and practiced law in San Francisco and Philadelphia. He has also taught at St. Joseph’s University, University of Chicago and The Anglo-American College in the Czech Republic.

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