What Is Law?

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Law is the system of rules a society develops to govern its relationships and dealings with one another, whether criminal or civil. It encompasses both the formal written and unwritten rules that regulate a country’s economic activities, political systems and history. It also includes a set of principles and procedures that govern how government officials and institutions act. It is a broad field that can be divided into numerous disciplines, such as constitutional law and international law. The precise nature of law is a subject of long-standing debate.

A common approach to law focuses on its practical application and the role it plays in regulating human conduct. In this view, the primary function of law is to provide people with a sense of security and stability. This enables people to plan their lives and make investments, trades and other transactions with confidence. In addition, laws can protect people from dangerous or harmful acts committed by others.

Another approach to the study of law focuses on legal philosophy. This includes the philosophies of positivism and legal realism. Legal positivism advocates that the meaning of law is determined by its purpose: “the law is nothing but a collection of maxims for regulating human conduct.”

The jurisprudence of legal realism, on the other hand, emphasizes the fact that the law is a social construct, and that its meaning is determined by how it is enforced. Specifically, it depends on who is in the position to enforce a particular law, and what additional considerations are brought to bear on legal disputes, which may or may not be included in the laws themselves.

Regardless of which philosophy is applied, law is a complex and elusive concept. It is a vital part of any modern society and has far-reaching implications for politics, economics and history. It influences human behavior and relations, governing everything from business transactions to family disputes.

Oxford Reference offers more than 34,000 concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries on this diverse and complex discipline. From crime and corporate law to intellectual property and the law of nations, our coverage helps researchers at all levels find the information they need quickly and easily. We also offer a wide range of subject guides, handbooks and atlases.