Friday, 6 May 2016

ESRC socio-legal masterclass, 3-4 May 2016: Are we all socio-legal now?

On the 3 May 2016, eighteen fresh-faced PhD students and a handful of academics found their way, haphazardly, to Cumberland Lodge, in the grounds of the beautiful (though almost sinister—we were told that leaving the Lodge after dark would result in our being accosted by guards and returned.  Anyone seen The Prisoner?) Windsor Great Park, for two days of immersive socio-legal discussion.  Geographically, we all arrived at the same spot at the same time through multiple different routes, which neatly sums up the discovery of socio-legal studies by postgrads working in law.  For instance while others seemed to miraculously get straight to the Lodge, I confidently arrived at a nearby town on a train from London, and then spent a long time lost, as did my taxi driver, traveling to and fro around the bucolic idyll of Windsor.  Having arrived at multiple entrances to the park which were all firmly closed, we finally found a gate that opened and let us in, only to discover that we were then lost within the park itself.  Needless to say, I made it to the Lodge just before the coffee ran out.  My experience of socio-legal studies has been similar: a confident beginning (doctrinal law was the business), followed by total confusion in the stunning theoretical scenery of my LLM in critical jurisprudence, before an arrival in the perhaps equally, though differently, puzzling yet irresistibly promising world of socio-legal research.  In this metaphor, I am yet to discover whether there is any coffee left…

The masterclass was led by Linda Mulcahy (LSE) under the auspices of the ESRC DTCs and principally took the form of group discussions around a set of issues and collection of texts.  Mercifully, the sessions did not religiously rely on the texts that had been set (I may have crammed a little on the train in…) and instead emphasised free discussion about our thoughts on and experiences with socio-legal research.  Due to this, I’m going to focus more on the themes that emerged from these dialogues rather than specific questions concerning the texts.

The first session focused on our understandings of what socio-legal research is.  It was, for me, the most valuable session as my research in international law and warfare kind of sets me on the fringe of socio-legal research, particularly in terms of method.  After a quasi-interview of Phil Thomas (Cardiff) by Dave Cowan (Bristol) we had an engaging discussion of what we postgrads understand socio-legal work to be.  Opinions ranged greatly between us, socio-legal scholarship being variously seen as a separate discipline, the application of non-law methodologies to the study of law and related issues, a rebellion against power in general, a rebellion against power in the form of the traditional law school and so on.  One possibility that particularly chimed with me was the notion, proposed by Thomas, that socio-legal research aims be subversive in an incremental and progressive manner, in contrast to the radical challenge to power that is the hallmark of critical approaches to law.

This theme was picked up at the second session, dealing with ‘critical empiricism’ (that kind of gives away what some of the assigned reading might have been…).  In this session, run by Mulcahy and Cowan, the maintenance of critical self-awareness by socio-legal researchers was emphasised.  For me the key message was that the apparently intractable antagonism between socio-legal and critical scholarship is really rather illusory, the barrier separating them being entirely permeable.  Interestingly, this feeling had been discussed over lunch, prior to the session, by some of the postgraduate attendees.  This, for me encapsulated why socio-legal work can be about the adoption of alternate methodologies, often from sociology, in legal research with a view to challenging ‘power’, be that of the state, the law school, corporations or whatever.  It seems that socio-legal and critical work exist on the same spectrum of challenges to power.  At one end there is the radical (or revolutionary) approach and at the other there is (perhaps) the uncritical compliance with power.  At the former end we are most likely to find work that would call itself critical, while at the latter we may find traditional doctrinal legal scholarship, with work more accepting of the law as it is.  I reckon that socio-legal studies can really exist at any point on that spectrum, bar the latter end.  Its aims are unfixed in terms of the extent to which power is challenged, though nonetheless defined by the presence of the challenge.

Next was a conversation between Rosemary Hunter (QMUL) and Mavis Maclean (Oxford) about Maclean’s extensive work with the Ministry of Justice.  This was the perfect segue from the previous session, as work so closely undertaken with a government department appears to run the risk of being co-opted, its potential challenge to power losing its force.  It was an insightful discussion in terms of the practicalities of such research but Maclean was also happy to grapple with the argument that her type of socio-legal work might become supportive of the status-quo.  Further emphasising the spectrum of possible types of socio-legal work, the message from this session was about the ability of such research to stop, or mitigate, crazy (my word, not hers) policy decisions.  This is perhaps the subtlest form of challenge to power that socio-legal research can offer, but it is a vital one.  If you’re not a revolutionary then informing policy decisions with evidence based research has to be one of the most important aims for those of us working in the academy.

The following three sessions (one after dinner and drinks, the other two after breakfast: oh how those established academics worked us!!) focused on the very real need for socio-legal researchers to be able to formulate research plans which can be communicated to people with money.  After receiving a scenario, we split into groups of three and formulated then pitched our research ideas.  For me this was an eye-opening session—I learned a lot about the practical side of running surveys, conducting interviews and many other activities I’ve not yet carried out.  Each group’s pitch was well received by our colleagues and the academics, who gave us in-depth and detailed feedback.  These sessions felt very much to have left behind the themes of challenges to power and focused instead on the skills socio-legal researchers need.

This continued in the final substantive session, in which Kate Malleson (QMUL) and Alan Paterson (Strathclyde) discussed the trials and tribulations of interviewing ‘elites’.  This session fit very well with the work undertaken by some of the attendees, which resulted in some very interesting conversations which I’m sure were highly beneficial to many.  Following this there was a session for reflection about our two days together, which I’m sure was excellent though I missed out on it as I had to leave early.  Perhaps someone can summarise it in a comment below!

In a very promising sign, the penultimate session had to be cut short: as I said, some of us had to leave early, but not before we had all posed for a group photo!  This was instigated not by the organisers but by us students.  During our time together we had fostered a great sense of community (like Phil’s group in the 1970s, though with less football… See Thomas, 1997: 9), and have agreed to create an informal network to aid our on-going research.  There was a palpable sense of potential and excitement about the future.  Ultimately this is perhaps the most important result of the two-day masterclass, I hope very much that it signals a continued interest in socio-legal research and that one day it will be a group of us hosting a similar event for optimistic young doctoral students.

  This just a representation, I haven't got a copy of the original photo...