Mixed-Media: The Art of Interdisciplinary Research in Socio-Legal Studies
In this post I discuss the advantages and perils of interdisciplinary Socio-Legal research. Rather than discussing the pros and cons of different methods within disciplines (qualitative or quantitative, structured- or semi-structured interviews) I discuss the pros and cons of answering research questions by combining different disciplines. I argue that the main advantage of interdisciplinary research is its ability to facilitate a systemic answer to research questions. Interdisciplinarity has permitted me to engage in what Almansi calls “maximalist” writing: characterised by “meatiness of subject, breadth of interest […] intensity of imagination, a touch of exuberance […]”. As I will argue below, this very characteristic also makes interdisciplinary research difficult, both in its execution and in its reception. In its execution because interdisciplinary research demands sufficiency of depth and precision; in its reception because interdisciplinary research requires, if not an interdisciplinary audience, then disciplinary audiences with an open mind. In light of these difficulties, I end this post with my suggestions on how to nonetheless embark on (the joys of) interdisciplinary research.
“What medium do you prefer to use?” I asked an illustrator friend recently. “Everything” she replied: “Anything that works”. My own attitude to research is similar: I study punishment and society drawing upon multiple, germane fields – law, legal history, criminology, political economy, political theory, political sociology, social psychology – to produce a complex but cogent narrative on the relationship between politics and punishment across Western Europe.
Cogency is essential because of course it’s “everything” and “anything” that we can use, but it must work: it must adhere to a theoretical vision, and it must be subordinated to a rigorous research question.
It is the openness of interdisciplinary research that makes it valuable and enjoyable. It is exciting to look beyond doctrinal confines, keeping a sharp eye out for complementary arguments in different fields, and trying to draw these arguments together. It is then important to return to the same fields in order to produce a new, hybrid conversation, waiting to see what insights the conversation might yield. The fields can be more or less distant: public law and criminal law, for example, can be recombined with criminal justice scholarship. Or you might try and engage with political economy, asking if punishment evolves in step with, or against the grain of, economic developments, and why. You could then undertake a sociological critique of criminalisation as a tool to manage social complexity in the “void” of contemporary politics, linking this back to political economic forms: neo-liberal; post-Fordist; liberal market. Here the picture that we paint is layered and ambitious: it is systemic, it is maximalist.
One of the downsides of interdisciplinary research is that the in-depth combination of perspectives, which makes it so rich, can also make it overly complex. Complexity can narrow down the audience for the research: a notable irony for an approach that explicitly purports to talk to the many (disciplines) and not the few. So how to engage in interdisciplinary Socio-Legal research? There are several things that I have found useful.
First is being disciplined: interdisciplinary research must be conducted with discipline. The author must be sure of their own starting point – the primary disciplines or small cluster of disciplines they begin from – and then be strict in choosing the places they will go next. In my case I started with the sociology of law, and then expanded towards more forms of sociology and of law, simultaneously drawing comparative political economy into the fold. Moreover, interdisciplinary research has to be communicable, which means that interdisciplinary scholars also have to learn how to parse out their research into smaller – but equally interdisciplinary– chunks. To repurpose the saying: it will be necessary to see and talk about the woods, and each single tree, and each single tree as part of the woods.
Second is time: time is necessary for the scholar to make and document their choices, and to understand if and how different disciplines can be recombined in the interest of the scholar’s motivating vision.
Third is patience: interdisciplinary research has the capacity to dissatisfy everyone. An interdisciplinary scholar is precisely that and is not an expert in all disciplines. This distinction is not always easy to capture and may lead to discipline-specific critique. Some level of patience and determination is therefore essential.
Fourth is place: this is perhaps the hardest to achieve, because it requires luck. Partly, “place” is a question of intellectual mentorship, and of finding scholars willing to help with our picking and choosing, cutting and pruning, of disciplines. However, “place” is also a question of politics and resources. There needs to be a place for slow-paced scholarship, scholarship that may not immediately find a journal to call home, or reviewers that can evaluate interdisciplinary research as interdisciplinary. If this particular challenge – which is an institutional challenge as much as anything else – is not met, then the result may be that younger scholars cannot afford to embark on interdisciplinary research. Interdisciplinarity will therefore de facto become a privilege reserved for scholars who are sufficiently established to be allowed such flights of academic fancy.
Still, having embarked upon interdisciplinary research, I would find it hard to back-track and reign in my ambition, exuberance, and imagination: I like a layered picture, after all.