There is one problem all academic fields and their practitioners face, whether you work in Astronomy or Assyriology. That problem, in a nutshell, is how to balance a field’s scientific role and its broader societal role. By scientific role I mean that every academic field, in order to qualify as such, has to operate according to certain scientific standards. At the same time, however, these fields also operate within a larger society, for which they must serve some sort of use other than solely gathering scientific knowledge. These two roles, however, do not always combine easily.
Some fields are better suited for dealing with this problem than others. For instance, scientific principles are rigorously tried and tested in civil engineering, a field which obviously has a practical use for society. Other fields, such as history and, paradoxically, law have a harder time dealing with this conundrum. Paradoxically because law is on the one hand completely immersed in society and present in many aspects of daily life, but on the other hand it is often misunderstood or played down by laypersons. In this sense, law is not an ivory tower, rising high above society, but an island surrounded on all sides by a sea of society.
Luckily, in Western societies there is a widespread feeling that we need laws, and the fact we have them is often taken for granted. However, I believe the field of law could do more to strengthen and clarify its undoubtedly strong link with society. One way of doing this is by carrying out interdisciplinary research and applying this. An example from the field of history is research carried out at Leiden University by history students on the topic of slavery in the former Dutch colony of the Dutch East-Indies. Using court records of cases against slaves the students shed light on the social relations between slaves themselves, between slaves and their owners and on their place in the legal system in the colonies. The authors thus contributed to the ongoing debate on how to deal with slavery as a part of (Dutch) history in a scientific way. I believe interdisciplinary legal research would be able to contribute in a similar way. For instance, combining legal insights with studies from social sciences on the factors involved in the acceptance of legal rules should yield interesting and useful results. In this sense, law would be better able to combine both its scientific and societal role.
Interested readers can find the research on slavery in the Dutch East-Indies from next week onwards (December 15th 2014) as very readable contributions in Acta Historica: platform voor beginnende historici.