Innovative workshop on interdisciplinarity at Kent Law School

An innovative workshop on interdisciplinarity at Kent Law School highlighted the extent to which academics “stretch and perforate the boundaries of Law as a discipline.”

The workshop, entitled ‘At the crossroads of humanities and social sciences: methodological questions and conversations,’ showcased the diverse methods and processes that academics adopt when approaching research questions.

A panel of six academics from the Law School were each asked to speak for ten minutes on how they might approach the task of writing a paper for an edited collection entitled ‘Bodies’. Their responses (summarised in more detail below) revealed how academics were either ‘task’ focused, ‘problem’ focused or ‘concept’ focused. Several admitted to finding the process of research ‘painful’ but all agreed on the importance of self-awareness (and that they were conscious of their own ‘place’ in the process.) Some academics said they were concerned with how law impacts on people (and on tracing that concern historically) whilst others said they were concerned with the question of how do we know what law is (or how do we know what we think we know about law or people).

Professor Didi Herman, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) Co-ordinator for the School, devised the workshop as a focus on the process rather than the content of research undertaken at Kent Law School. She said: ‘We hoped to highlight how Kent Law School is a leading centre of critical interdisciplinarity, meaning that we don’t just add a discipline ‘to law’ (ie Law and ….). Many of our scholars exist at the crossroads of various humanities and social science disciplines, and are re-imagining and creating new approaches to research.’

The workshop succeeded in stimulating engaging debate and discussion which Professor Herman said revealed “just how far our colleagues stretch and perforate the boundaries of Law as a discipline.”

Asked how they might approach the task of writing a paper for an edited collection entitled ‘Bodies’, Professor Helen Carr, Professor Emilie Cloatre, Dr Hyo Kang, Dr Emily Haslam, Dr Connal Parsley and Professor Amanda Perry-Kessaris responded as follows:

Professor Carr said she tended to approach a research topic or task by starting with her own experience so in this case, would think about her work as a housing tribunal judge concerned with poor peoples’ housing conditions:

  • She would then turn to the ‘legal question’, and ask a question like: how does law regulate poor peoples’ bodies, and what are the consequences of that regulation?
  • She would look at the history of housing regulation, using Hansard as a major source
  • Her ‘go to’ literatures are Michel Foucault and the subsequent governance literature drawing on his work
  • She would also think of looking at the literature on ‘do good’ professionals
  • Her hope would be to write something exposing the moral and social underpinning of law in this area

Professor Cloatre said she would see herself as coming to the task from the perspective of her research focus on issues at the crossroad between law and medicine:

  • Her first questions would be: who is the audience for the edited book? Who are the editors and do I wish to converse with them? How does my research ‘agenda’ fit with the aims of the book?
  • She would then think about the topic in terms of knowledge, ie how do we know what we know about bodies? What work do ‘materials’ do in informing this knowledge?
  • Then focus on concepts – what would be the disciplinary contribution she would make to this book? What does she have to say to this audience, what is the contribution she would make?
  • Her ‘go to’ literatures are medical anthropology; Science and Technology Studies; Actor Network theory but she would also want to bring in socio-legal and feminist work – she is interested in ‘conceptual layering’, not dogmatic devotion to particular writers

Dr Haslam said she would think about the task from the perspective of work that she’s recently been doing in historical archives on slavery and abolition:

  • She’s been influenced by work she’s read on ‘silences’ in archives, and in reading along and against the grain, and how to enable sources to ‘talk back’
  • She would situate herself as an international law academic and ask what she could bring to this collection
  • She would like to be in conversation with some of the historians who’ve written on this archive material
  • Would also see her task as being about giving questions of agency under discussion in the archives
  • Her focus would be on the human ‘subjects’ of legal regulation

Dr Kang said she would begin by wanting to know about the edited book: who are the editors? What is the context of the collection? How free is she to write what she wants or is there an agenda/theme for the book she needs to conform to?

  • She would then ask: what is the problem or puzzle when it comes to thinking about bodies? It could be something she’s read that makes her uncomfortable, and she wants to engage with it in some way
  • She would then think about the concepts related to bodies – ie embodiment; corporeality; Kings to bodies; body politics; corporate bodies
  • Then would think about bodies in relate to her field intellectual property – where the whole point is to give shape or embodiness to intangibles
  • She would see the question of ‘what is the body in law’ as a puzzle to try and unravel, pain stands out as a concept that might be very relevant
  • Important that she is clear in the choice of avenues she would ultimately choose, she could draw on feminist materialism literature or evolutionary biology or cognitive neuroscience but the choice of direction must be made and stuck with
  • But the choice would be led by the problem/puzzle being addressed, not any particular literature

Dr Parsley said his first questions would be: can I make an original contribution to this book by drawing on my existing research projects? As we all have limited time, what do I want to put out into the world on this topic, what do I want to make?

  • Research and writing is a creative process and the aim is to make an argument that ‘works’ and can be encountered similarly to an artwork
  • Often begins with questions in visual culture and particularly representation – how things are represented, but also representation as a historically contingent thing that bridges knowledge and experience
  • Doesn’t necessarily have ‘go to’ literatures. He would ask:what traditions (legal and non-legal) have thought about and represented bodies? Which literatures are interesting in inter-relation with legal literature? To which tradition(s) and contemporary knowledges can I make a critical contribution as a specifically legal scholar who works across disciplines
  • There is a ‘mystical’ element in his research process, it’s a place of paying attention to unexpected confluences and encounters that he notices only because of the research question
  • The research and writing process is a careful and sometimes painful process of ‘doing justice’ to the objects of analysis and the literatures that have considered them, whilst allowing both to push the boundaries of what can be said about them. The choice to approach research output as a ‘work’ like a piece of art helps make sense of this process.

Professor Perry-Kessaris said her starting point would usually be in asking how to make things visible/tangible?

  • She is interested in the economic life of law, which she approaches from a sociologically-informed perspective known as economic sociology of law
  • She would ask: where do bodies ‘fit’ conceptually into the economic life of law; and where are there empirical examples of bodies in my current research on law and island-wide economic life in Cyprus?
  • She would also ask how could the idea of ‘bodies’ be used as a fieldwork tool?
  • She would start by reading something in her research area with a ‘high fact content’ – in order to identify where bodies are
  • She would then want to make something – to make models of bodies and to use them to think through how bodies interact in the field (in this case Cyprus), and also to use these models in interviews and have her interviewees use them
  • one of her ‘go to’ literatures is conventional economics (partly because this literature is so clear in its objectives)