Descriptive Theory vs Normative Theory

In jurisprudence, two fundamental approaches shape our understanding of law: descriptive theory and normative theory. While both seek to elucidate aspects of legal systems, they diverge significantly in their methodologies, aims, and implications. This article endeavours to explore the differences between these two theories, shedding light on their respective roles and contributions to the field of jurisprudence.

Descriptive Theory
Descriptive theory in legal scholarship is concerned with the objective description and analysis of existing legal systems, institutions, norms, and practices. It aims to provide an accurate portrayal of how the law operates in society without passing judgment on its moral or ethical implications. Descriptive theorists seek to answer questions such as "What is the law?" and "How does it function?" through empirical observation, analysis of legal texts, and examination of legal institutions.

Descriptive theory relies heavily on empirical data and observation to understand the functioning of legal systems. It examines how laws are created, interpreted, applied, and enforced in practice. Descriptive theorists strive to maintain objectivity and neutrality in their analysis, refraining from making normative judgments about the moral or ethical legitimacy of legal norms or practices. The primary goal of descriptive theory is to provide an accurate and comprehensive description of legal phenomena, including legal rules, institutions, and behaviours, without prescribing how the law should be.

Normative Theory
Normative theory, on the other hand, is concerned with evaluating the moral or ethical principles underlying legal systems and assessing their desirability or legitimacy. It seeks to answer questions such as "What ought the law to be?" and "What principles should guide legal decision-making?" by engaging in moral and philosophical analysis.

Normative theorists examine legal norms and practices through a moral or ethical lens, assessing their conformity with fundamental principles of justice, fairness, equality, and human rights. Normative theory goes beyond describing existing legal systems and proposes normative standards or principles to guide legal reform or decision-making. It seeks to identify ideal legal norms and institutions based on moral or ethical considerations. Normative theorists often engage in advocacy or critique, arguing for or against specific legal reforms or policies based on their normative assessments of justice and morality.

Differences and Interplay
The key distinction between descriptive theory and normative theory lies in their respective aims and methodologies. While descriptive theory seeks to provide an objective description of the law as it is, normative theory engages in moral and philosophical analysis to assess the law as it ought to be. However, these two approaches are not mutually exclusive; they often intersect and inform each other.

Descriptive theory provides the empirical foundation upon which normative theories are built, offering insights into how legal systems operate in practice. Normative theories, in turn, challenge and enrich descriptive analyses by questioning the moral and ethical implications of existing legal norms and practices.

In conclusion, descriptive theory and normative theory represent distinct approaches to understanding and evaluating legal systems. While descriptive theory focuses on providing an objective description of the law as it exists, normative theory engages in moral and philosophical analysis to assess its normative legitimacy. Both approaches play essential roles in legal scholarship, contributing to our understanding of the complex interplay between law, morality, and society.
Back to blog

UOL Case Bank

Upon joining, you become a valuable UOL student and gain instant access to over 2,100 case summaries. UOL Case Bank is constantly expanding. Speed up your revision with us now.

Subscribe Now

Where are our students from?

Yale University
Council of Europe
Baker Mckenzie 
University of Chicago
Columbia University
New York University
University of Michigan 
University College London (UCL)
London School of Economics (LSE)
King’s College London (KCL)
University of London
University of Manchester
University of Zurich
University of York
Brandeis University
University of Exeter
University of Sheffield
Boston University
University of Washington
University of Leeds
University of Law
Royal Holloway, University of London 
Birkbeck, University of London
SOAS, University of London
University of Kent
University of Hull
Queen’s University Belfast
Toronto Metropolitan University
Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
University of Buckingham
ESSEC Business School

  • Criminal Practice

    Diagrams and Charts

    Our carefully designed diagrams and charts will guide you through complex legal issues.

  • Criminal Law

    Clear and Succinct Definitions

    Key concepts are concisely defined to help you understand legal topics quickly.

  • Property Law

    Statutory Provisions

    Statutory provisions are provided side by side with legal concepts to help you swiftly locate the relevant legislation.

  • Public Law

    Case Summaries

    We have summarised important cases for you so that you don't need to read long and boring cases.

  • Evidence

    Rules and Exceptions

    Rules and exceptions are clearly listed so that you know when a rule applies and when it doesn't.

  • Company Law


    Legal terms and key concepts are explained at the beginning of each chapter to help you learn efficiently.

  • Case Law

    Case law is provided side by side with legal concepts so that you know how legal principles and precedents were established.

  • Law Exam Guide

    Law Essay Guide

    You will learn essential law exam skills and essay writing techniques that are not taught in class.

  • Law Exam Guide

    Problem Question Guide

    We will show you how to answer problem questions step by step to achieve first-class results.

  • Conflict of Laws

    Structured Explanations

    Complex legal concepts are broken down into concise and digestible bullet point explanations.

  • Legal System and Method

    Legal Research

    You will learn legal research techniques with our study guide and become a proficient legal researcher.

  • Jurisprudence and Legal Theory


    All essential concepts, principles, and case law are included so that you can answer exam questions quickly.