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Two people at a table seen through a glassdoor
Photo by Giorgio Trovato on Unsplash

On “hanging out” with judges: Reflections on researching “up”

Two people at a table seen through a glassdoor
Photo by Giorgio Trovato on Unsplash

My experience researching judicial empowerment in the East African Court of Justice (EACJ) was permeated with the challenges of accessing elites while “studying up.” This article foregrounds the taken-for-granted informal approaches to accessing elites and reflects on the peculiarities of researching authoritative individuals who usually do not want to be studied.

For my fieldwork, I had intended only to conduct in-depth judicial interviews. Armed with thoroughly revised interview questions, I contacted potential interviewees via official channels and shared the necessary documentation. Upon arrival in the field, I followed up via email, only to be met with silence or rejections. Not being part of the legal profession, I lacked the professional “insiderness.” My only advantage, or so I thought, was that I hailed from the region that I researched, and perhaps, cultural sensitivity and saying the “right things” would open up the closed judicial space. I recall reaching out to an older male judge and being met with dismissal of my research, albeit couched in reasonable excuses. I even offered to follow him to his country home (which would require a day-long bus journey), where I would avail myself at his convenience. Surprised and somewhat irritated by my suggestion, he gently declined, saying he would be too busy to engage me. Another encounter with a retired Lady Justice was not much different. Despite my persistence, she could not make the time even if she empathised with my research circumstances. A drought of interviewees after a three-week stay in Kampala reconfirmed the need for different access logics. Appreciating the challenges brought on by my positionality, I sought inspiration from informal techniques which draw on ethnographic approaches. Thus, this article draws on “hanging out” while studying “up” to think through my approach to accessing judicial interviews.

For a profession that thrives on formality and discretion, the cold email approach would not bridge the hierarchy or create the rapport I needed to ask the types of politically sensitive questions I intended to pose to the supposedly apolitical judges. It was imperative that I spend extended periods following judges across multiple locations whilst engaging in informal and sociable interactions outside of the professional realm. To gain entrée into hanging out with judicial elites, I invited the EACJ registrar to my favourite local restaurant during his business trip to Kampala. To my delight, he agreed to this impromptu dining arrangement (not merely a “lucky encounter” as I drew on my social and professional capital to secure this initial “hang out”). In this introductory tête-à-tête, in between mouthfuls, we compared regional delicacies, exchanged about our mutual interest in my research topic, cemented the rapport we had built earlier over Zoom, and began to touch on my access impasse. Sympathetic to my cause, the registrar shared a picture of himself, the EACJ president and myself, introducing me as “a PhD student in Germany who is doing research on EACJ.” He added that the Court President had “extended an invitation” to me to “attend November Court sessions in Bujumbura and meet all Judges.” This introduction broke the barriers that had hampered my research.

Building on this starting point, I sought access to rapport-building activities (from exclusive court-organised events to internal gatherings), which presented opportunities to exchange with judges informally. Rather than the formalised interviews where I had to go through several judicial gatekeepers to access the judges who were often isolated in their chambers, the set-up of a bar, restaurant, cocktail gathering or hallway dissipated the researcher-judge constellation, allowing for rapport-building. Moreover, I gained a more intimate understanding of judicial attitudes, perceptions or musings on topics that arose in light-hearted conversations – from regional politics to threats to judicial independence – steering my research in a more humane direction and paving the way for “relational interviews”. “Hanging out” allowed me to develop sensitivity to judicial practice and gave me the vocabulary to frame interview questions more appropriately without causing suspicion and discomfort. As a result, I conducted several semi-structured interviews with EACJ judges, lasting up to two hours, where I learned more about judicial perspectives, attitudes and strategies of (dis)empowering the court.

This piece has underscored the relevance of the informal dimension to studying up. It notes that interviews need not be a standalone method but could benefit from intentional borrowing from long-established ethnographic methodologies. My experience shows that while these informal approaches have been underestimated, especially regarding qualitative judicial research, they proved more yielding as they highlighted the role of the informal in a predominantly formalistic judicial culture.

About the Author

Diana Kisakye

PhD Candidate, University of Bayreuth

Diana Kisakye is a PhD Candidate (Political Science) at the Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies (BIGSAS) and a Research Associate with the Africa Multiple Cluster of Excellence at the University of Bayreuth, Germany. Her research interests include judicial politics, African development politics, and African regional integration processes.

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