This is our final day of posting for this blog forum (of course, we’ll keep chatting with folks who show up over the weekend and beyond in response to things we’ve posted this week). Thanks so much to everyone in the ELS “community” for inviting us, and for this interesting discussion. I hope that we will continue to think together about many of these issues in the future.
And, speaking of communities, our topic for today is “building interdisciplinary communities.” Some of the things emphasized by NLR (combining methods, and careful translation among disciplines) go hand-in-hand with community-building across disciplines. We invite readers to chime in today with examples from their own experiences -- anecdotes about what has helped in building bridges across disciplines. (Empirical studies are of course also welcome!) Can you remember a time when you felt that you suddenly (or not so suddenly) understood what someone from a different disciplinary background was trying to convey? Or can you remember conferences or workshops that you felt transcended the usual format of “author presents and audience critiques” and blossomed into a wider, fruitful discussion across varying viewpoints or positions?
In keeping with the NLR focus on building from the “ground level” up, I’ll take the plunge here by giving some examples from my own experience, hoping that some of you will pitch in as well. I have had the good fortune during my academic career to be a member of three truly interdisciplinary communities. As a postdoc, I spent time at the Center for Psychosocial Studies, an interdisciplinary think tank that integrated scholarship from the fields of psychology, sociology, history, anthropology, linguistics, philosophy, social theory, and law. I was then hired at the American Bar Foundation, internationally known as a leading sociolegal research institute – and a place that courageously bridges some seemingly intractable disciplinary divides. And, most recently, I was also invited to join the legendary law-and-society community at the University of Wisconsin Law School, which has steadfastly integrated social science into legal research and training all along regardless of the current fashions in the legal academy. (Okay, so I obviously love and believe in these places; sorry for the plugs – I’ll move on to more substantive comments--)
My first lesson in what it takes to be truly interdisciplinary came as a postdoc at the Center. We were required as postdocs to attend several lengthy seminars each week. The seminars were led by advanced scholars in various disciplines; we were expected to slog through core material from different fields. Every time we encountered a new discipline, we went through several months of wondering how anyone could take this kind of research seriously. But we had a norm of maintaining inquiring rather than combative discussion, and over time we would gradually come to grasp the new field in a different way. We didn’t all immediately agree with or integrate, say, Vygotskian psychology, or Silversteinian linguistics – but we at least gained a better sense of why someone might approach the world that way. Some of us did attempt to build more synthetic approaches, both methodologically and theoretically. I think that it helped to have a sustained engagement; it helped to wrestle with core texts rather than simply presenting our own research; and it helped that we had developed respect for one another as colleagues. This collegial connection kept us working away at the translation effort at times when we were tempted to take the easier path of retreating to our own favored disciplinary stances. It can also help to have the same social issue or problem on the table, watching to see what different aspects of the problem are noticed when we employ diverse disciplinary technologies.
This idea of sharing a topic area is one of the core sources of integration, I think, at the ABF; we all do research on law, from varying vantages. There are a variety of ways in which the ABF scholars learn from each other (and I’m hoping someone else from ABF will chime in as well, since I’m sure we have different vantages on this). For me some of the most intense experiences have been the discussions we had at LSI, when I was co-editor with people from other disciplines (economics, sociology, history, psychology, law/politics). Again, a shared collegial mutual respect helped us to find ways to discuss (and even agree about) articles from our quite diverse fields. We were also driven by a desire to achieve a good interdisciplinary mix for the publication; I remember working hard to encourage submissions from good scholars from a broad variety of fields, some of which started from very different premises than my own. I have also learned a great deal at our ongoing ABF research seminars, and from occasional collaborations with colleagues from other disciplines (who are happily, right down the hall). The ABF philosophy has been that interdisciplinary work in law will flourish best if it is grounded in cutting-edge social science research which can meet the standards set by social science fields themselves.
I’m still getting to know the community at
Of course, as this blog demonstrates, we also now have all the tools given by the internet and new forms of communication for building interdisciplinary communities. It will be interesting to watch how these tools can best be put to work to help us achieve more integrative empirically-grounded approaches to studying law.