Friday, September 01, 2006

What It Means To Be a Sociolegal Researcher

I received an email from Hazel Genn, who is professor of socio-legal studies at University College London. She is writing a report for the Nuffield Foundation about empirical research in law.

How are you? Sorry to bother you in August but am writing in the hope that you might have a summer moment to help out. I am finalising the Nuffield Inquiry report and want to include some 'vignettes' of leading empirical legal researchers to bring academic trajectories to life. Is there any chance that you could give me a brief biographical paragraph or so about your academic qualifications and how you got into empirical "socio-legal" research - motives, incentives, barriers, challenges etc? It can be as long or short as you like and happy to accept stream of consciousness, bullet points or indeed anything in any form that I can use.

I've written a bit about this before, but here is my response:

Three things got me into socio-legal work. The first was being sent by Michael Zander to a police station to ask what information they had for arrested people: no one told the police that I and 50 other first-year law students were about to descend on them. The second was watching a man fall off the roof of a train between Wadi Halfa and Khartoum, get arrested for travelling illegally while being screamed at by 300 people sitting on the same roof who of course were not arrested. The third was taking a course in anthropology of law. That alone made me realise there was much more to law than, to my mind then, stultifying doctrinal analysis of statutes and cases. The other two forced me to consider that the world was normatively pluralist and that there were other sources of norms than the state.

I experimented with empirical work by going to Warwick for an LLM by research. It gave me freedom. I wanted to study barristers’ clerks, a small group who seemed to exert considerable control over significant parts of the legal profession. By accident I became an ethnographer, they having decided that I could not possibly understand their work by merely asking questions in an interview. When it came time to write up I was at a loss. No one in the law school had done this kind of research although William Twining knew about it through his work on Llewellyn and Hoebel—but he was a theoretician like the former rather than a fieldworker like the latter. Warwick, however, had a resident anthropologist from whom I began to learn the art of being a sociologist.

I was convinced to understand the legal system we had to understand how lawyers functioned within it. To find this I had to go the US and ended up in Chicago at the American Bar Foundation and Northwestern University’s sociology department where I registered for a PhD. At these two institutions what I wanted to do was normal. My PhD—an ethnography of a large law firm—and subsequent studies all revolved around doing empirical work. Although the law and society movement was small, it was considerably bigger than in the UK. I never had to defend my work against the charge of “not being law”, something which has happened a lot in the UK. Indeed, my first job in the US was a joint appointment between a law school and a social science department.

Of course that doesn’t hold now. Over 50% of the law schools in the RAE2001 said they did socio-legal work. But that raises a serious question for me. Preparing students for socio-legal work is time consuming and necessitates a series of skills, most of which are absent from law schools. In the US I found the interaction between law schools, sociology, history, political science and economics departments and business schools highly stimulating and it generated research of enormous quality. The training for socio-legal scholars is also more rigorous and encompassing than in the UK. An increasing number of socio-legal scholars now have double qualifications in law and a social science. That’s as it should be.

One final point: being a empirical socio-legal scholar in a law school, which is where most are in the UK, means living on the academic margins. But I prefer life there since there are fewer rules to adhere to and so one isn’t bound by convention as much as mainstream scholars.


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