A Case-Study of Non-Western Legal Systems and Cultures

Sociology of Law, Lund University, Lund, Sweden



This chapter originally grew out of reflections on the applicability of socio-legal theory to the study of non-Western societies and jurisdictions. Are theories and assumptions which were initially developed as part of studies of law in Western societies applicable to the study of non-Western law and legality in non-Western legal cultures? Legal sociology was developed in Western Europe and North America, and only more recently has it spread to other countries in the South and Central Americas. We find no established tradition of socio-legal research in most Middle Eastern and African countries. Understandably we need to question if legal sociology’s conceptualisation of the relationship between law and society does not harbour great limitations when it comes to the study of law in non-Western societies. This concern is hardly new and has been among the methodological considerations which have preoccupied social and cultural anthropologists (most of whom initially were Westerners studying non-Western cultures). In the context of the methodological discussions of this book, this chapter shows that theories developed on the basis of studying Western legal systems have both limitations and possibilities. The relationship between Iranian law, state and culture is, for example, rooted in the country’s long and turbulent history and differs radically from that of Western European nations. However, Iran has the oldest democratic constitution in the Middle East, a constitution which was originally inspired by legal developments in Western Europe, and part of the architecture of its legal system is based on French civil law.

This chapter is based on ‘Driving Dangerously: Law, Culture and Driving habits in Iran’. In (2012) British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 39(2): 241–257. It was originally co-authored with Shahrad Nasrolahi Fard who conducted the interviews in Tehran.

1 Prologue: One Word

In A Treatise on One Word, an essay on constitutional government written in 1871, Yusef Khan Mustashar od-Dawleh argued that all Iran needed, in order to transform itself into a modern nation, could be summed up in one word.1 This magical word was qānon (from the Greek kanon), which he went on to describe as a French-style body of written legal codes uniformly applicable to all. Mustashar od-Dawleh was not alone in wondering why Iran had stagnated economically and was in a state of social disarray while European countries were prospering through technological progress. He was, however, amongst the first few who identified the main cause of Iran’s economic backwardness and social malaise as its failure to develop a modern constitutional government.

The publication of One Word in 1873 is part of the germination of a historically unique political movement for the establishment of the rule of law, which grew into the Iranian Constitutional Revolution between 1905 and 1911. The political momentum of this movement, which was supported by members of the clergy, merchants and royals, eventually forced the Qajar monarch, Mozaffar al-Din Shāh, to concede the election of a Parliament on 12 January 1906 and sign the first Iranian Constitution, which was drafted later the same year. By injecting the idea of democracy and the rule of law into the political life of the nation, the Constitutional Revolution permanently transformed Iranian politics and yet failed to create an executive branch which de facto operated and was accountable under the law. The establishment of a constitutional government was resisted by courtiers, state officials and the monarch, whose arbitrary powers it aimed to curtail. It was also opposed by the colonial powers, whose plans for the region were undermined by the rise of a revolutionary and democratic Iran.2 However, a more important reason for the failure of the Constitutional Revolution to achieve its ultimate goals can be found in its lack of grassroots support. The underpinning ideology of the movement had not grown organically in Iran but was rather imported from Europe by the first generation of Iranian intellectuals during the nineteenth century and did not gain currency among their ordinary countrymen. Moreover, establishing the rule of law requires continuity in lawmaking and democratic processes, not to mention a public space which facilitates political debates and disagreements. Such continuity and space have not been characteristics of the historical processes which have defined Iran’s social and political development over the centuries.3

The institutionalisation of the Iranian Constitution was interrupted by external and internal political events, and plans to replace the arbitrary rule of the state (or estebdād) with the rule of law were brought to a premature end when Reza Khān (later Reza Shāh), an officer in the Persian Cossack Brigade, overthrew Ahmad Shāh Qajar and established the Pahlavi dynasty in 1925. With the reign of the Pahlavis began Iran’s modern era of estebdād. The Pahlavis carried out an extensive programme of construction and modernisation, setting up inter alia a modern judiciary, but their modernity was not introduced through a process of democratisation. Instead, it took the form of sham Westernisation imposed on the people of Iran, largely through the barrel of the gun.4 The Pahlavi family ruled Iran through 54 years of political turmoil and social instability until it too was swept aside by the tide of a revolutionary movement.

2 Reckless Driving and Legal Culture

Aside from the overwhelmingly friendly and welcoming people, any first-time visitor to Iran will be stunned by the country’s driving habits. Seatbelts and mirrors are for sissies… Lanes are ignored in an all-out free-for-all. Traffic merges at 90 degrees and just pushes through. People drive backwards for blocks on one-way streets. U-turns in the middle of crowded thoroughfares are common. For some reason there seem to be very few wrecks (or even dings on cars) and nobody takes it personally. McLean (2007)

I don’t know why everyone is driving so fast… All they do when they get to their destination is drink tea.5 De Bellaigue (2004, p. 13)

This chapter may be read as an attempt to explore the driving habits of Iranians in light of Homa Katouzian’s historical thesis, which posits that Iranian society was not founded on written or unwritten ‘canons’ of law (qānon) and therefore has not acquired a strong tradition of rule by law (see Katouzian 1997, 2009). Although this study concludes by providing empirical support for Katouzian’s thesis, it originally started as a socio-legal inquiry into how Iranians perceive, conceptualise and experience their driving habits. During my recent visits to Iran, I was struck by the deterioration of the traffic situation and could not help wondering if it mirrored some structural dysfunctions embedded in Iranian society and culture. Otherwise, how could a group of people, who pride themselves, as one of the interviewees in this study put it, on being ‘courteous’, behave so recklessly towards the rights and safety of each other when driving their cars?

Iran has the highest rate of road traffic accidents (RTAs) worldwide—five times the world average. According to UNICEF (2007), ‘in 2006 nearly 28,000 people died in traffic accidents in Iran, compared with roughly 17,000 in 2000’,6 constituting the second most frequent single cause of mortality in the country (Amani and Kazemnejad 2010; Abbasi-Shavazi 2004).7 It is estimated that as many as 70 % of RTAs may be due to reckless and dangerous driving, with illegal overtaking and high-speed driving the main causes (See Iran Car Accidents 2011). In 2010, the population of Iran was about 74 million, the majority (65 %) of which lived in urban areas. According to the Statistical Center of Iran, more than 50 % of the population is under the age of 25 years, which means that the country has one of the youngest—and thus car accident-prone—populations in the world (cf. Abbasi-Shavazi 2004, p. 2; Ghajarieh et al. 2010, p. 342). The Iranian government has been concerned about the exceptionally high rate of RTAs for some time, and officials believe that current traffic regulations, which were introduced in the 1970s, are no longer fit for purpose (see Tehran Times, 8 November 2008). Consequently, the authorities have been seeking ways to improve driving habits by introducing severer penalties (Financial Times, 10 June 2008), and a new Bill entitled ‘Traffic Penalty’ has been submitted to Parliament, which introduces tough penalties for dangerous and reckless driving. It is, however, doubtful if tougher penalties will result in improved driver behaviour. Traffic researchers recognise the importance of law in regulating traffic and driving behaviour, but they point out that laws designed specifically to change driving habits are ultimately dependent on the legal culture of those responsible for enforcing the law, as well as on the legal culture of those who are expected to obey it accordingly (see McCartt and Geary 2004; Mashaw and Harfst 1990).8 The cultural dimensions of driving, and the fact that it is mediated through the technology of the automobile, which in itself affects behaviour in particular ways, turn it into a highly complex activity. As a result of its socio-cultural complexity, driving does not lend itself easily to formal methods of regulation.

There is a growing body of Iranian research, conducted with very few exceptions by various groups of medical doctors based at university hospitals, which describes and analyses the rising levels of RTAs as a new social problem ‘caused by the rapid modernisation of society’ (Salamati et al. 2009, p. 6). These studies often highlight growing car ownership (or the rapid increase in output of Iran’s car manufacturing industry), the constitution of the population in Iran (as mentioned above, Iran has a youthful population) and the changed lifestyles of Iranians (see Zamani-Alavijeh et al. 2010; Vafaee-Najar et al. 2010; Vafaee et al. 2009; Ardalan et al. 2009; Naghavi et al. 2009; Nevadeh et al. 2008; Karkhaneh et al. 2008; Karbakhsh and Zargar 2006; Muntazeri 2004; Ayati 2004; Rousari 2004). Moreover, they discuss RTAs in terms of morbidity, pathology, epidemiology, injury and trauma, and—unwittingly as the case might be—they ‘medicalise’ RTAs. What is otherwise a societal problem requiring public policy debate is thus presented from a medical or epidemiological angle—a ‘neglected epidemic’, as Muntazeri (2004, p. 110) calls it.9 With one exception (see Zamani-Alavijeh et al. 2010), these studies are based on hard data collected by hospitals and traffic authorities. They conceptualise driving primarily as a set of skills or a form of performance and, as a result, disregard the possible significance of perceptions, attitudes, culture, law, history or forms of regulation for driving habits.10 In addition, they disregard the body of social-scientific research that examines the complex relationship between the automobile, which is a form of technology mediated socio-culturally, and driving, as a socio-cultural behaviour mediated through said technology (Urry et al. 2005; Urry 2007; Miller 2001; Evans 1991; Neal 1985; Lewis 1980; Dettelbach 1976). One objective of this study is to bring some balance to the debate on RTAs in Iran by highlighting driving habits as a complex behaviour informed by cultural as well as legal and technological processes. Through the historical interconnectivity of both law and culture, this chapter will also pay attention to the historical context of Iranian legal culture.

In the following pages, sections 3.1 and 3.3 describe 20 open and 15 semi-structured interviews conducted to explore how Iranians perceive and describe their driving habits and how they experience the traffic problems in their country. Sections 3.2 and 3.4 places the results of the interviews in a socio-cultural and historical context, examining the impact of the arbitrary exercise of power by successive Iranian states on the formation of a type of individuality and sense of community which is hostile to the state (and to state law and regulation) and oblivious to the needs of the larger society. Above, I have made references to Iranians and Iranian culture in sweeping terms. Iran is an ethno-culturally and linguistically diverse country, consisting of a large number of ethno-cultural groups including Persians (who constitute the majority at about 60 % of the population), Azerbaijanis, Kurds, Lurs, Arabs, Baluchis, Turkmen, Turkic tribal groups such as the Qashqai, Armenians, Assyrians, Iranian Jews, Georgians and other small ethnic groups. In order to minimise issues arising from the internal diversity of Iran, this study will limit its scope to Farsi-speaking urban regions—to the cities of Tehran and Shiraz. It will also focus on traffic accidents in urban areas rather than on highways between cities.

3 Iranians’ Perceptions of Driving

This section presents two sets of interviews conducted in Farsi (Persian). The first set is based on 20 in-depth interviews conducted by the author, each about one hour long, and held in Shiraz, Iran’s sixth largest city (population 1,227,000) in June 2010. The second set consists of 15 semi-structured interviews (each about 45 min) conducted by Mr Shahrad Nasrolahi Fard specifically for this study in Tehran in December 2010 and January 2011. The interviews were recorded and the following is based on the analysis of the recordings.

3.1 Interviews in Shiraz

Shiraz has a severe traffic problem, and the driving habits of the people there are believed to be worse than in, for example, Tehran. Twenty in-depth interviews were conducted to explore how people living in Shiraz perceived RTAs and how they conceptualised and expressed their experience of driving habits and the traffic situation. Although no claim is made here that the interviewees represent the population of the city, attempts were nonetheless made to ensure the spread of interviews across sociological categories such as class, age and gender. The interviewees include professionals, such as doctors, teachers, lawyers and civil servants, as well as students, taxi drivers, shopkeepers and shop assistants. The interviews began by asking why Iran had a disproportionately high rate of RTAs and what the interviewees thought of Iranians’ driving habits—no question was asked regarding law or the legal system. The interviewees were encouraged to account for their personal experience of RTAs and driving, and then to explain in their own words what driving a car meant to them.

Each interviewee saw the problem from his or her own point of view, emphasising various aspects of driving and traffic; some saw it mainly from the point of view of the driver, while others who did not drive saw it instead from the point of view of pedestrians. Some emphasised its social and cultural dimensions, while others focused on its technological aspects. A taxi driver blamed women drivers for their incompetent driving, while a female driver blamed taxi drivers for their aggressive driving. Various interviewees also touched in passing on a large number of disparate issues which according to them were among the causes of RTA. These ranged from the general stress associated with living in large cities, to the refusal of many drivers to wear seatbelts and to the impact of increased migration from rural to urban areas. Despite all these differences, the overwhelming majority of these interviews overlapped to varying degrees, suggesting certain commonality in attitudes towards driving and the experiences of RTAs and traffic regulation. This commonality took two forms: using exactly the same words, such as ‘lawlessness’ or ‘individuality’, or various terms such as the ‘lack of the culture of driving’. In this section, I will identify and describe these common points, hereon referring to them as the recurrent themes of the interviews. These were raised or emphasised by at least 17 of the 20 interviewees. Three of the interviewees diverged from the mainstream by not talking about disorder, one explanation for which is that they identified themselves with the political order in Iran, as speaking of disorder would have implied a critique of the law enforcement agencies. Once they were pressed to explain the causes of the high levels of RTAs, they blamed the public’s disregard of traffic rules.

Law enforcement, or the lack thereof, is the first theme which recurs in 17 interviews. On the one hand, the interviewees blamed the police for their ineffective enforcement of the traffic rules, while, on the other, they criticised both drivers and pedestrians for not respecting or obeying the law. One other recurrent point raised by most interviewees concerned the culture of driving. The majority implicitly or explicitly said that the Iranians did not have a ‘culture of driving’. The lack of driving culture, in turn, was linked to another recurrent issue regarding the excessive individuality of Iranians, namely that they drive for themselves, oblivious to other drivers or pedestrians. Similarly, those who saw the problem from a driver’s point of view pointed out that pedestrians follow no rules—they cross roads wherever they like, causing chaos and accidents. When they were asked about their experience of being a pedestrian, they simply repeated that there were no rules—one of the problems was that no traffic rules applied to pedestrians or protected their rights. Finally, more than half of those interviewed made passing remarks on the role of the car as a status symbol—referring to the ‘new rich with their expensive cars’, who think that they own the roads. The following excerpts from the interviews illustrate the recurrent themes and the main concerns of the interviewees.

Theme One: The unreliability of laws and the inconsistency of law enforcement:


A 60-year-old (male) civil servant: ‘The police often don’t enforce the traffic rules, but when they do enforce them they discriminate in favour of certain groups… Iranians will obey the driving regulations, but only if they know that they will be caught and penalised if they break them… Police don’t enforce the law and people don’t respect it’.



A 20-year-old (female) student: ‘The traffic rules aren’t taken seriously… Driving to Iranians means pressing the gas pedal. It isn’t about knowing the traffic rules or following the signs… Anyway, the traffic rules aren’t enforced effectively and we know that there is one law for ordinary people and one law for those who are connected…’.



A 25-year-old (male) taxi driver: ‘These people need to be educated and taught how to drive. The authorities… should take away their driving licences and force them to relearn the driving rules and retake the driving tests. But then, of course, you also must make sure that the laws are obeyed. There is no point in having traffic rules if they are neither followed nor enforced…’.


Theme Two: The excessive individuality of Iranians


A 51-year-old (female) nurse from Shiraz: ‘The problem with us Iranians is that we all want to get ahead of each other, no matter what. That is why we don’t show any consideration when driving and cannot give way or show patience…’.



A 20-year-old (male) shop assistant: ‘When I am driving, I have to get through the traffic the best as I can. I’d never get where I’m going if I start giving way to others… You cannot follow the traffic rules when everyone else sets them aside…’.


Theme Three: Culture and Technology


A 35-year-old (female) teacher: ‘We Iranians pride ourselves on being courteous, but turn into the most inconsiderate and selfish people as soon as we get behind the driving wheel… Something happens to us which makes us blind to other people, whether drivers or pedestrians…’



A middle-aged (male) medical doctor: The car was imported more than a hundred years ago… but the culture of driving couldn’t be imported with it. You might think a hundred years is long enough to develop the culture… But we haven’t developed a culture of driving yet. There are traffic rules but they are set aside by everyone and enforced selectively and ineffectively by police…’.


Comparing these excerpts, we notice that they are not exclusive. The way these themes are expressed shows how interconnected the issues of law enforcement, driving culture, individuality and technology are within this context.

3.2 Preliminary Reflections

Driving habits are shaped by a variety of social norms and cultural values learnt in childhood, including our attitude to the larger society, to rules and to other people’s rights (cf. Durkin and Tolmie 2010), as well as by peer groups, personal experience and psychological factors such as personality and temperament (Lupton 2002). All of the interviewees regarded Iranian driving habits as a social problem, and they also discussed directly or indirectly the importance of a ‘culture of driving’. Here are two typical examples:

A 50-year-old (male) shopkeeper: ‘The way we drive is based on a bad habit we have picked up over many years. Now it is so entrenched that we can’t change it. Perhaps by educating our children from an early age to respect the traffic rules, and by using the mass media to inform people about the correct driving culture, we could change our ways’.

A 35-year-old (female) teacher: ‘I don’t say everyone, but most people I know understand that the way they drive is not right. They know we shouldn’t behave towards each other in this way, but they still do it’.

The first interviewee contrasts actual driving habits against a set of standards of driving (a culture of driving) to make a value judgement, which suggests that there are behavioural expectations (prescriptive social norms) at the level of society regarding a ‘culture of driving’ or orderly driving behaviour. The second interviewee suggests that there are general prescriptive norms which should ideally be applicable to driving. These norms, which belong to the category of injunctive norms, are defined by Kallgren et al. (2000) as what should be done or what is commonly approved and disapproved of, while Elek et al. (2006) describes them as people’s perceptions about what ought to be done. Injunctive norms regularise and bring to bear the normative force of discrete social values existing at the level of society on social action at the level of the individual. The decision to obey or defy them involves making a conscious or unconscious value judgement in regard to social goods. These ‘ought norms’ concern prescribed patterns of behaviour, reciprocity (expectations), a sense of responsibility and obligations. Moreover, they generate shared expectation and mutual trust among the members of a social group by indicating the desirable form of conduct. At the same time, they influence the actor’s conduct accordingly and promise ‘rewards or punishment externally imposed by others, such as the society at large, parents or peers’ (Venkatesan 1966). These injunctive or ought norms should be contrasted with ‘descriptive norms’, which indicate ‘what is commonly done’ (Kallgren et al. 2000), or standard de facto behaviour (Elek et al. 2006

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