Donald Black’s concept of the sociology of the case contends that any legal case is in the last instance predominantly affected by sociological factors. In other words, for Black, a legal case is not simply reducible to legal norms, such as what is contained in the content of a particular law. Rather, the case as a process necessarily goes beyond the norms of the law to the extent that all participants in the case are products of social facts. These may include factors such as the social roles which structure the case itself, from that of the judge who society has invested with a responsibility to decide on a case, and therefore, by definition possesses a dominant role in the case structure, to that of the accused, who may be from any number of different social backgrounds, which, in turn, impact the final decision.
The fundamental contribution of Black’s concept is thus that it forces legal thought to think beyond the law itself and incorporate the entire legal process into a greater sociological framework, which helps explain why particular legal decisions are made. What Black criticizes, in other words, is a type of legal formalism which analyzes the law only in the terms of the law, namely, the specific propositions and enforced norms which create a given system of laws.
On the one hand, Black’s concept is helpful because it opposes any type of simple reductionism which attempts to define how laws work and how they are enforced. In other words, the legal paradigm cannot isolate itself from society, to the extent that it directly addresses society and how individuals behave, either in accordance or against the law. On the other hand, perhaps one of the problems of Black’s account is that it is simply too broad. If society is comprised of so many diverse and heterogeneous elements, then using the sociological approach will not clarify how legal cases proceed, but rather make their logic more ambiguous and esoteric.
Certainly, this does not mean that Black’s concept has no pragmatic value. If we examine scenarios where various marginalized groups are the accused in a given case, the sociology of the case can help us predict the case’s outcome. Namely, to the extent that these groups are marginalized, the legal decision on the verdict of a case would most likely be merely an extension of this same marginalization.
In other words, if the accused is marginalized in society and, following Black’s argument, society affects legal decisions, there is a high likelihood that the legal case would follow this same pattern of marginalization instead of being an anomaly to the greater social facts. However, from another perspective, this does not mean that the method is foolproof in determining outcomes, precisely because there are numerous social facts which determine a case and we would need an understanding of how all these social facts affect decision-making so as to predict outcomes.
The positive aspect of the sociology of the case is thus that it dispels the illusion that the law is a type of parallel universe that always arbitrarily judges, but rather must be viewed as one dimension of the greater society. This helps explain how certain legal decisions are reached and also why legal decisions are not entirely predictable. A negative aspect, in contrast, is that by stating that the paradigm of law is determined by society, one needs a robust concept of society, so as to properly understand the law. The diverse opinions which exist in sociological literature about what society is and what are the determining factors in a society complicates this aim.