What Is Law?


Law is the system of rules that a particular country or community recognizes as regulating its members’ actions. These laws are enforced by a controlling authority, such as police or courts. They can also punish people who break the rules, for example by imposing fines or imprisonment. In addition, laws can define what is right or wrong in society and set standards for desirable behavior.

Throughout history, the nature of law has been debated. Early legal positivists held that the essence of law is its coercive aspect, in which the state uses force to impose practical demands on individuals. More recently, philosophers have argued that the coercive element of law is not essential and that it can be viewed as merely one among many functions that law fulfills in our lives.

The law may serve a variety of purposes in our societies, from solving recurrent and multiple coordination problems to proclaiming symbolic expressions of communal values or settling disputes about facts. It can also protect the vulnerable, promote social justice and orderly social change. However, some systems of law are more effective at achieving these objectives than others. For example, an authoritarian regime can keep the peace and maintain the status quo, but it may also oppress minorities or political opponents (as in Burma or Zimbabwe). Conversely, a democratic regime may not only settle disputes over factual matters, but it can also provide opportunities for participation by citizens in making laws.

Writing a Law article requires good research skills, a pragmatic mindset and the will to explore the issues systematically. It can be an excellent way of expressing one’s opinions about important changes and bringing these to the forefront of public discussion.

From a methodological standpoint, law is complex because it has both descriptive and normative dimensions. Normative statements in law are deprived of the descriptive or causal character found in empirical science (as with a law of gravity) or social science (as with a law of demand and supply).

The field of Law encompasses an enormous variety of topics. Some of these are reflected in specific branches of law, such as contract law, which regulates agreements to exchange goods or services, and property law, which defines people’s rights and duties toward tangible and intangible possessions. Other areas are broader, such as criminal law and constitutional law, which deal with the legitimacy of governments’ actions. In addition, there are fields that describe the specifics of particular activities or issues, such as air law, bankruptcy law and maritime law. Finally, there are fields that examine specialized laws such as medical jurisprudence, military jurisprudence and labor law. Oxford Reference offers thousands of concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries on every major area of law. Our coverage includes international law, family law, tax law and major debates in legal theory. Our entries are written by expert authors for researchers at all levels. They include chronologies and tables to help you navigate the complexity of this vast discipline.