IPT Book Reviews

Title: Why People Obey the Law  Positive Review Positive Review
Author: Tom R. Tyler
Publisher: Yale University Press, 1990

Yale University Press
92A Yale Station
New Haven, CT 06520
(203) 4324)960
$35.00 (c), $13.00 (p)


This report of a significant sociological/psychological study of the relationship between citizens and the law, law enforcement, and the system of justice has five parts with 13 chapters, three appendices, and an index in 273 pages.  Part One describes the problem and briefly indicates what may be a cause for major social upheaval.  Previous research suggests that citizens are interested in procedural justice but leaders emphasize an instrumental understanding.  Leaders believe people obey laws because of the outcomes and therefore make laws and attach ever stiffer and more draconian penalties for breaking them.  Citizens are not as much interested in outcomes as in the sense of fairness and equity they have in dealing with those who seek to make them comply with the law.  The study reported here aimed at testing the conclusion that citizens are interested in procedural justice.

Parts Two and Three present the data from an initial random sample of 1,575 respondents to a telephone interview of about 25 minutes.  A year later a random subset of 804 respondents were reinterviewed.  The questionnaires used in both interviews are included in an appendix to the book.  These chapters discuss the results in relationship to the concept of legitimacy of authority.  When authority is viewed as legitimate, compliance to the law increases.  Part Four presents the results in terms of the concept of procedural justice.  The data show a strong commitment to procedural justice on the part of the citizens.  Part Five, Conclusions, states unequivocally that the normative issues matter.  People understand their system of justice in terms unrelated to outcomes.


The significance of the finding that individual citizens respond to perceptions of fairness and unfairness rather than to the simple concept of the outcome being favorable or unfavorable is immense.  It strengthens the concept of a free democratic society and suggests that special interest groups cannot really dominate and control.  It also means that those who would rule had best be able to attend to the issue of fairness rather than simply demanding obedience.  Here is the rub: our lawmakers take an instrumental view of law and miss the ordinary citizen's desire to be treated fairly first of all.  The way to increase compliance with the law, as suggested by this report, is to emphasize fair and equitable treatment for all rather than to increase the punitiveness and harshness of the consequences of breaking the law.

In the system for dealing with allegations of child abuse, the emphasis has been placed on prosecution and punishment.  Although the laws of every state in one way or another endorse the concept of family reunification, the reality is that families are destroyed and permanently damaged when an accusation of abuse hits the system.  The chief response heard in every support group for families who have been involved in the system and in the few research studies assessing the impact of intervention is the cry that everybody has been treated unfairly. (Anonymous, 1991; Burak, 1988; Luza, & Ortiz, 1991; Schultz, 1989).  Victims are used as objects to obtain convictions.  Those in the system operate and make decisions on the basis of myth rather than knowledge (Conte, Fogarty, & Collins, 1991).  A chief complaint, repeated over and over, is that nobody ever interviews the accused or listens to the other side of the story (San Diego County Grand Jury, 1992).

Tyler's book should be read and understood by everybody who is involved in the system of making or enforcing laws.  If it were, the system might well become more equitable and citizens more compliant.


Anonymous (1991, October). Secret touches. Mother Jones, pp. 46-51, 60-61.

Burak, S. (1988). The power of social workers: A comparative analysis of child protection legislation. Canadian Journal of Family Law, 7(1), 117-130.

Conte, J. R., Fogarty, L., & Collins, M. E. (1991). National survey of professional practice in child sexual abuse. Journal of Family Violence, 6(2), 149-166.

Luza, S., & Ortiz, B. (1991). The dynamic of shame in interactions between Child Protective Services and families falsely accused of child abuse. Issues In Child Abuse Accusations, 3(2), 108-123.

San Diego County Grand Jury. (1992, February 6). Families in crisis. Report No.2. San Diego, CA.

Schultz, L. (1989). One hundred cases of unfounded child sexual abuse: A survey and recommendations. Issues in Child Abuse Accusations, 1(1), 29-38.

Reviewed by Ralph Underwager, Institute for Psychological Therapies, Northfield, Minnesota.

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