Ask the Author: Phil Thomas
In this latest post for Ask the Author, Professor Linda Mulcahy interviews Phil Thomas. Phil was born in Wales and educated in Caerphilly, Cardiff, Aberystwyth, and Michigan. He has held positions at Yale, New Haven, University of East Africa, Dar es Salaam, University of Zambia, Lusaka, Michigan, Ann Arbor, and finally at Cardiff University. He established the Journal of Law and Society in 1974 and is the current editor. Phil is a founding member of the UK Socio-Legal Studies Association.
What Socio-Legal issues are keeping you awake?
I am a long-term member of a declining community of scholars who received no training in research methods. Doctrinal law comprised my formal legal education. What I subsequently learnt about methods was auto didactic acquired through trial and error, often the latter. Consequently, I encourage readers to grasp every opportunity to upgrade their socio legal skills. Today, within our community appropriate skills awareness has improved but there remains much to be learnt particularly concerning quantitative application and analysis.
What Socio-Legal work are you reading at the moment?
I am a retired emeritus professor, no longer research active. My socio legal awareness and interests are focused now through the lens of the Journal of Law and Society. It is a journal I established and continue to edit. This privileged position offers me an overview of issues and trends faced by academics. One negative trend is the current institutional pressure to publish that both promotes and exploits individual ambition. Young scholars are tempted to submit articles prematurely. Quality not quantity should be the leitmotif of scholarship. We are judged, in part, by what we publish. Aiming for the very best is an admirable target. Submitting a socio legal paper that is knowingly not your best work reflects on the author, now and thereafter. There are ways of limiting this seductive trap. For instance, although research and writing are often exercises undertaken in isolation they can be mitigated by involving secondary critical readers, trustworthy people whose opinions are respected. What is self-evident to the author is not always apparent to a third party. Conference and seminar presentations of your ideas and potential paper will sharpen your ideas and enlarge your circle of like-minded scholars. Be prepared to engage with the reader for whom you are writing. Offer the reader a road map at the start of your paper, do not be repetitive, be direct, inventive, and constructive. Before you send it to a journal take a breath and read it, very carefully, again, with perhaps a tired reluctant willingness to make further changes to the text. I suspect no paper is ever 100% ready!
Do you have a favourite Socio-Legal paper?
It is invidious to select my favourite socio legal paper. There are many contenders. Consequently, I identify three papers, in no particular order. Each paper involves a strong theoretical base that is tested by well explained empirical research and data. These analytical papers address important political and social policy issues of the moment. They include poverty, housing, trauma, education, children, battlefield morality, and political neglect. ‘The Politics of Production of Knowledge on Trauma: the Grenfell Tower Inquiry‘, Natalie Ohana, Journal of Law and Society, vol. 48, issue 4, 497-523. ‘Vehicles for Justice: Buses and Advancement‘, Antonia Layard, Journal of Law and Society, vol. 49, 406-429. And, ‘A Duty to Protect: Legal Consciousness Among Military Officers in Armed Conflict’, Sine Vorland Holen, Journal of Law and Society, vol. 50, issue 1, Spring 2023.
What advice would you give to a younger self?
When I reflect on my field work research one lesson stands out. It is that you must be prepared to be shocked, surprised and accept that your premises and expected outcomes can change or even be negated. You should be guided by the data not by prior plans or expectations. Data is sacrosanct. For example, I interviewed a few international drug smugglers detained in Cadiz prison. I expected to meet frustrated, angry men complaining about the loss of liberty, inedible food, and dire prison conditions, perhaps one with an eye patch, or scary tattoos and a heavy gold chest medallion [wrong symbolic profiling!]. They were worldly-wise young men who had regularly presented in their travels to and from North Africa as carefree tourists or executives until apprehended. They were held in an ‘international’ prison compound. They had access to UK newspapers and magazines, imported alcohol and cigarettes of their choice. Fresh food was brought in which they took competitive turns to cook. Faux ‘conjugal’ visits from local sex workers were permitted. This lifestyle was possible through their unofficial and illegal financial relationship with prison officers. They were perceived as model prisoners by the authorities (Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis). We sat in the autumn sun on a yard bench and talked about their smuggling methods. They treated short term imprisonment as an enforced holiday and an opportunity to improve their Spanish. There was no thought of rehabilitation. It was a break from work before returning to smuggling with enhanced language skills, new contacts, and renewed energy. So be prepared for the unexpected.