Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Case against 'Interdisciplinarity' in Law

This week, in the course of one day I ran across three people who expressed some degree of existential crisis over their efforts to approach law from an interdisciplinary perspective. Over the last decade, interdisciplinarity – i.e., ‘law and . . .’ – has become all the rage, at least in American law schools. And I am increasingly of the belief that this fascination is unwarranted.

The problem, as I see it, lies not the borrowing of ideas and even theories from other disciplines. The problem lies in the self-conscious identification of doing ‘interdisciplinary work.’ The problem is that interdisciplinarity actually strives to bring into harmonic synthesis epistemic communities that in fact do not want to be synthesized. Academic disciplines define themselves in opposition to one another. And they guard their boundaries very jealously. I personally know of a number of scholars who were dismissed from their respective departments, not because they were not accomplished scholars, but simply because it was determined (by others) that their scholarship lie in some other discipline. The disciplinary need to distinguish in this way is so strong that it even extends to socialization – different disciplines also adopt their own distinctive dress codes and vocabularies that serve, at least in part, to identify members as insiders rather than outsiders.

For this reason, I would argue, a self-conscious interdisciplinarity is institutionally impossible. To seek consciously to do “law and . . .” is like trying to speak English and Arabic at the same time, because the vocabularies and styles of presentation that identifies one as a “legal scholar” will also simultaneously identify one as not being something else, and vice versa. Hence, the existential crises alluded to above.

This is not to claim that legal scholarship should return to the days of an autonomous logical positivism. Other disciplines do indeed have a lot to offer legal scholarship. My complaint is simply against the self-conscious identification (and advertising) of some forms of scholarship as ‘interdisciplinary’. In fact, all legal scholarship is, I would suggest, interdisciplinary to some degree or another. So there is really no analytic advantage to being self-conscious in being so. In fact, efforts to consciously distinguish interdisciplinary legal scholarship from let’s call it ‘ordinary’ legal scholarship can even threaten the opposite of what they want to accomplish. At least in some cases, the effort to establish interdisciplinarity as a distinctive analytic methodology can devolve principally into the introduction of some other discipline’s distinctive socializing features – its particular vocabularies and modes of presentation – into the law. When this happens, the effect is not to link the two disciplines, but simply to create sub-disciplines within law that are themselves seem, at least to the outsider, more exclusive and exclusory than integrative.

I think that true, interdisciplinary work is probably more like zen – you do it best when your not consciously trying to do it. It’s also like prose – in that legal scholarship (and that of other disciplines as well) has been doing it for a long time without actually knowing it.

That having been said, I might also note that I work for an organization called “The Clarke Program in East Asian Law and Culture.” So our obsession with interdisciplinary does have at least one up-side in that it keeps me off the streets – that is, of course, unless my boss happens to read this.


Derek said...

I think you're right that a self-conscious interdisciplinary approach is problematic if one's goal is to harmonize two fields so that everyone feels like they are part of the discussion. Instead, as you suggest, what's likely to happen is the creation of a new sub field with its own distinct "in" characteristics.

But is that really what interdisciplinary legal scholarship aims at? And if so, should it be? I would think the primary benefit of "Law and ______" would be that it helps us come up with new and interesting predictions, interpretations, and explanations of legal issues by importing a different perspective along with its attendant analytical tools. True, this will entail new vocabularies and methodologies that might alienate "Law and _____" folks from the more "traditional" legal academy, but I think that's okay if, in return, we get a fresh (and potentially useful) way of reconceptualizing old and intractable problems.

If that's right, it's hard to see how one could be truly interdisciplinary (in the above sense) without being *self-consciously* interdisciplinary, since being a successful "Law and ______" scholar entails a certain amount of conscious specialization in _____. So I guess what I'm suggesting is that maybe the problem isn't with the self-conscious aspect of the interdisciplinary approach, but with the tendency to confuse it with some sort of ecumenicalism.

Michael W. Dowdle said...

You're right that one should use the analytic tool that is appropriate to the task. And other disciplines do indeed provide many tools that are very useful in helping us make better sense of 'the law'. But my point is that it should be the task, not the tool, that defines the research. I think that when we too consciously seek to be 'interdisciplinary', than we risk making the tool become an end unto itself (think Posner, for example).

I like the analogy to ecunemicalism, though. That is a good way to describe the ideal.

andy grewal said...

"Interdisciplinarity" is probably the worst affliction to have been visited upon law schools since Legal Realism.

After 1L year, I *actually* thought the way to go about interpreting a statute was to figure out which interpretation provided the best "ex ante" incentives. It is shameful that law schools do not teach law students how to analyze statutes.

This is not to say that the law schools need to be "practical" or that they should teach students how to "think like a lawyer." Rather, law schools should teach students how to think about the *law*, rather than how to think about "law and economics." Save the theories for the upper level seminars.

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