I've been spending a lot of time recently thinking about the "great divide" between legal academics and political scientists. Even today, with many avenues for communication between these fields -- like this very blog -- there is less than one might expect. Certainly, there are many in both fields who read and talk across the divide, and I'd expect that many readers of this blog are among those. But there remains the puzzle of why this is the exception and not the rule.
One possible reason has to do with substantial differences in the norms of scholarship in the different fields. Articles in the social sciences in general tend to be much shorter than law review articles, and more narrowly focused. They are also more likely to involve quantitative empirical analysis and to emphasize methodology. Law review articles, on the other hand, are notoriously long, but a single piece can explore a variety of theories and themes and is often focused on the broader implications of legal opinions, events, or analysis. As a result of these differences -- and leaving aside criticisms of the underlying content of the scholarship -- I think that legal academics often find social science pieces either opaque or -- due to their narrow focus -- uninteresting. On the flip side, of course, social scientists often find law review articles tedious and imprecise.
The increasing interest in empirical legal scholarship in the legal academy may help temper some of these tendencies, but there is a long way to go. Scholars in both legal academia and in the social sciences could go much further in trying to make their work understandable to people outside their own field. As but one example, I'll hold out the recent work of Thomas G. Hansford & James F. Spriggs II. Their book, The Politics of Precedent on the U.S. Supreme Court explores the ways that justices use precedent. The book is ambitious and quite interesting. Its argument and conclusions, however, are not written in ways designed to get the attention of legal scholars who are not themselves engaged in empirical work, despite the fact that at least some of those conclusions may be interesting to qualitative scholars of the Supreme Court. In a thumbnail review in the Law Library Journal, for example, the reviewer dismissed the book as "better suited for a political science class than a legal audience..." The book itself contains a lot of sophisticated statistical analysis that is not translated for those who might not be familiar or comfortable with that methodology, and it assumes familiarity with political science norms and resources (the Spaeth Supreme Court databases, for example). All of this is unfortunate because it makes it less likely that the work will be read (much less understood) by most legal scholars. And to reiterate the point of my italics above -- this is especially unfortunate to the extent that the Hansford and Spriggs' findings would be interesting to the many law professors who are not themselves empirical legal scholars, but who study the Supreme Court from other perspectives.
So what to do? More co-authorship would be helpful. More self-consciousness about the ways in which the norms of one field may exclude or deter readers from another. I'd be particularly interested in seeing different presentations of the same work in different settings. Hansford and Spriggs, for example, might consider a law review article that presents their work to a legal academic audience. (Of course, they may already be doing this.) With apologies to Hansford and Spriggs, I hope that this blog post helps nudge social scientists and legal academics alike towards learning to speak a bit of each others' languages.