Are laws effective at enacting social reform?



In India we have many laws which are intended to curb social customs like dowry.

Are laws effective at curbing social customs? Are any alternatives more effective?

Kinjal Dixit

Posted 2013-07-22T09:19:04.497

Reputation: 131

2Before people start VTCing/DVing - this is actually a pretty good question if it gets tightened up a bit. A study comparing social pressures and bottom-up political pressure with top-down social changes (and cases where one drives another) would be very much on-topic and answer the question perfectly. – user4012 – 2013-07-22T13:03:58.810

1Good historical examples to analyze is Peter the Great's major reforms in Russia; Lincoln and emancipation; US racial issues throughout the last 200 years; anti-nazi laws in Germany and Europe. – user4012 – 2013-07-22T13:05:58.583

"Should" shouldn't be used on BG.SE. "Can" or "Is" is more appropriate if you want to have an answerable question. – user1873 – 2013-07-23T02:08:43.193

1@user1873. What is BG.SE? The only one I can think of off hand is Bord Games, and that hardly seems relevant. – TRiG – 2013-07-23T22:51:13.553

1@TriG, BoardGames.StackExchage. I forgot which SE site I was on. The point holds though, "should" implies some sort of "moral" or "ethical" choice, and using it makes the question unanswerable. If you should/n't use the force of law to impose social norms is dependent upon whether you believe forcing social norms though force of law is "right". Either position is defendable depending upon your ethical stance, and hence "should" questions are poor questions for the P.SE Q&A format. – user1873 – 2013-07-24T01:03:38.467

"Effective" pushes this question into a very subjective realm, if effective isn't properly defined. The law might have the desired impact of curbing the custom, but what is the cost incurred in doing so? This could range from a distaste for government, a loss of political capital, or driving practices underground. – Drunk Cynic – 2017-10-08T18:16:58.793



This is just my opinion but I think that legislation that attempts to engineer society to make it fit some particular opinion of what is moral only really changes observable behaviour because it doesn't really address the underlying issues of the behaviour, so people will conform to the new laws in public at least but you cannot force them to conform to the spirit in which the law was conceived. So racists are still racist and can still act on their racism just as long as they are not open about it, which itself created a barrier to true social change because now the problem becomes harder to quantify.

I think there is a danger that laws that were enacted to achieve a noble aim like race equality can become oppressive and discriminatory overtime, when the original laws fail to achieve the intended goals new even more draconian laws are enacted and so on.

The people who's behaviour you are trying to change will resent the coercion and their loss of freedom and become even more entrenched in their opinions. Also the people the laws were created to protect are told they are now safe or equal citizens but in reality people's opinions haven't changed much and the discrimination or abuse just carries on as before and they get frustrated at the lack of real change. This can be very divisive for society the US has a lot of laws that exist to protect special classes of people but is very polarised politically, especially around the issues of race and abortion.

IMO to achieve true lasting change your vision of how society should be has to complete and win out in the market place of ideas, you have to convince people your way is right and if you can't do that then maybe its a bad idea anyway.


Posted 2013-07-22T09:19:04.497

Reputation: 2 296

"IMO to achieve true lasting change your vision of how society should be has to complete and win out in the market place of ideas" = but keep in mind, at least in a democratic society, the laws are a form of 'the market place of ideas' I think most would agree that a law, in and of itself, won't sway the minds of the masses, but it does set up a societal framework to help the market place of ideas blossom and ferment. – None – 2013-07-23T13:47:38.987

51% of people decide they want a law, even if the law is concrete enough in its definition that 51% of people can agree on its implementation 49% of the population is still a a lot of people to coerce. – user1450877 – 2013-07-23T14:10:12.230

No arguments there (other than it's not usually a simple majority, but that's a different discussion). But also note that the law is sometimes enacted simply because the 'marketplace of ideas' just isn't working. A racist is likely going to remain a racist regardless of both the marketplace of ideas and the law. At least with the latter, there are some consequences to actions. – None – 2013-07-23T14:15:23.263


You really should list some unsuccessful laws attempting to sway cultural norms. Prohibition (alcohol), prohibition (drugs), prohibition (gambling), underage marriage, homosexuality, pornography, ...

– user1873 – 2013-07-23T14:25:38.657

Making racism illegal was probably the biggest setback for civil rights. – user1873 – 2013-07-23T14:27:33.743

2@user1873 racism isn't illegal. :) – None – 2013-07-23T18:37:13.910

I think it's an excellent point about laws that didn't work to sway societal trends, though. That said, they are slightly different concepts. I suppose 'drinking' is more of a custom while 'racial relations' is perhaps an entirely different type of scope. – None – 2013-07-23T18:48:18.083

"A racist is likely going to remain a racist regardless of both the marketplace of ideas and the law. At least with the latter, there are some consequences to actions." What consequences were you speaking of? – user1873 – 2013-07-24T00:57:38.873

So social customs or learned stuff, like drinking, smoking, demanding dowry, aborting infant foetuses are different from natural or wired stuff like fear/mistrust of people who dont look like us (racism), sexual orientation, and so forth. – Kinjal Dixit – 2013-07-24T03:47:24.680

@user1873 acting upon one's racism in a way that breaks laws is an example how how their may be consequences. We've made particular actions illegal. But people are still free to be racist. – None – 2013-07-29T22:26:24.517

@DA., I was using a common definition, "2. prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior" or what pops up in Google, "2. Prejudice or discrimination directed against someone of a different race based on such a belief." So, it is illegal in that sense.

– user1873 – 2013-07-30T01:35:14.617

why the down vote ? – user1450877 – 2013-08-02T09:21:35.960

"only really changes observable behaviour because it doesn't really address the underlying issues of the behaviour" - thats why education is a key part of such initiatives. – Mozibur Ullah – 2017-12-07T17:14:52.220


The primary motive of the laws is to deliver justice to those who are exploited, though they also act as a deterrent for further similar actions and thus drive social reform.

Having a look at the numbers for percentage decrease over a year in the number of crimes registered under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 from here.

1995 - 6.8%
1996 - 30.9%
1997 - 16.1%
1998 - 7.8%
1999 - 1.9%
2000 - -1.2%
2001 - 13.2%
2002 - 17.2%

We can observe that there is a steady decline in the number of cases over the years (though better impact estimation methodologies can be employed).

So even though basically it is enlightened social opinion that brings about social reform, even legal bounds and incentives prove to be helpful.


Posted 2013-07-22T09:19:04.497

Reputation: 343

What do the percentages represent (what is the numerator/denominator)? Also, I don't see a monotonic decrease; there is a drastic increase in the last two data points. If anything, the passage of the POA and its aftermath show us social change cannot be legislated by fiat. – Jedi – 2017-11-14T03:06:18.613


I would think it is effective so long as the right time framework is chosen to evaluate the success of the law ie a matter of decades and not just years; education is another route by which social change is attempted; also through the media, and today by social media.

Such change is very difficult to quantify because getting data is difficult and expensive; this might change in the near & mid term as more and more people use social media as here large amounts of data is relatively easy to harvest; however there are hazards involved with this too ie privacy issues & political and policy manipulation.

Mozibur Ullah

Posted 2013-07-22T09:19:04.497

Reputation: 3 678

@drunk cynic: It's unsourced as they're not exactly earth-shattering observations; can you find me a source that challenges these common observations? – Mozibur Ullah – 2017-12-07T18:12:58.287

@DrunkCynic: I'd really be interested if you find some sources that challenges the rather simple-minded conclusions that I made. – Mozibur Ullah – 2017-12-07T18:21:21.920

@DrunkCynic: or is it because you can't...? – Mozibur Ullah – 2017-12-07T18:21:48.300