Since the American and French revolutions, written constitutions have become, with a few exceptions, a standard feature of contemporary societies, prescribing both the system of government and the relations between citizens and the government.
Constitutions take various forms in different societies, but essentially determine how policy issues, often of fundamental social importance, are to be decided and implemented. A constitution can become the very symbol of a society, as in the United States; or it can be a major social issue over which opinions differ sharply, as in the European Union. It can be a rallying point for reform, even revolution; or an instrument for political ends.
Constitutions and constitutionalism are usually studied either doctrinally, that is, as the source of fundamental legal doctrine, or conceptually, that is, as containing concepts to be examined using philosophical methods of analysis. The approach of this programme entitled The Social Foundations of Constitutions offers a third way: the study of constitutions and constitutionalism in their social context, emphasizing their social character and role, their social goals, and their links to other parts of society, especially economic and political aspects.
This approach assumes the importance of historical factors and the concerns of the time in shaping constitutions and constitutional thought. Drawing on the research and literature of politics, economics, and sociology, the programme will examine the concept and practice of representation, the legislative process and the character of modern administrative government, and the role of the judiciary in shaping constitutional instruments such as bills of rights.