Nov. 15, 2010, Staying on the Right Track, or Not
A three-year NSF grant funds research on how adolescents learn to understand the law.
As any parent knows, an adolescent can go through a lot of changes between middle school and the early twenties. Yet, it is in these critical years that young people learn to understand one of the major foundations of social interaction—the law. Learning how to think about the law is far from straightforward and is influenced by gender, class, and other factors such as parental and peer factors, individual differences, and attitudes.
Ellen Cohn, professor of psychology, has researched legal socialization for more than 30 years with multiple grants from the NSF Law and Social Sciences Program. Her 1990 book, Legal Socialization: A Study of Norms and Rules, coauthored with Susan O. White, professor emerita of political science, developed a basic model for the field. “We studied how people’s attitudes about the law might explain the relationship between legal reasoning and their own rule-violating behavior,” Cohn says. “Specific attitudes included how much people approved of rule-violating behavior or how much they disapproved of rules being enforced.”
Cohn and White’s subjects were college students at UNH. While their research showed that legal attitudes were positively correlated with behaviors, Cohn and White expressed the need to expand, design, and implement more complex studies: “We conclude that neither cognitive development nor social learning theory is sufficient by itself to account for the process of legal socialization.” They likened the process of understanding legal socialization to learning the grammar of another language.