Leiden Law Blog

Matching legal and social sciences

Matching legal and social sciences

When I was a student in both the anthropology and law departments, one of the biggest challenges was to find an appropriate outfit to wear to both faculties. Quite some of my fellow anthropology students wore clothing inspired by other cultures. Most cared little for a Western formal dress code, and some even opposed it out of principle. But at the law school, the vast majority of my fellow students seemed to opt for a more formal and western appearance.

Today I am a researcher at the Law faculty, working in the interdisciplinary field of socio-legal studies. Now I am confronted with other challenges, some of which still relate to striking a good balance between the social and legal sciences, or should I say, the social and legal scientists? Their different perspectives occasionally cause misunderstandings, and some scholars have become hesitant to engage with the other discipline. Over time I have learned to better understand why.

One of the causes of the supposed gap between the disciplines is the differing points of departure in anthropology and law. As an anthropologist I was trained to think that as a researcher I should be aware that objectivity should be strived for, but that it is virtually impossible to achieve. Therefore the researcher needs to be very critical towards him or herself, and examine how the research might be influenced or biased by the researcher as a person. Furthermore, the researcher should be careful with generalisations, and should be aware that his or her answers would never be definite. If another researcher were to use a different methodology, or even because he or she is another person who notices different things and provokes different reactions, that could influence the findings. These disciplinary characteristics make it indispensable for social scientists to meticulously think through and describe the methodology they use. They also should come up with a clearly circumscribed research question. Often that comes down to painfully admitting that your research can only provide an answer to a very limited question.

What a relief it was to study law! All these concrete, definite answers to solve just about any imaginable question deriving from a social dispute! These answers could be obtained by legal reasoning. This meant that one needed to consult various sources of law and interpret them according to a certain hierarchy. The worst thing that could happen was that one did not apply the method of legal reasoning correctly, which would inevitably lead to the wrong answer. Nobody ever questioned the method as such, and I was not expected to critically assess my own personal influence on the research to detect any possible subjectivity in my approach. The leading questions would always be: ‘Does this situation fit into the legal scheme, and if so, how?’, and the answer could always be provided.

Although the differences between the disciplines became clear to me rather quickly, it took me a while to understand why they persist. Eventually I found that for a large part it had to do with the different aims of both disciplines. The goal of social sciences is to better understand social phenomena, without taking a normative view or directly aiming to offer solutions for social problems. By contrast, one of the main purposes of having a legal system is to be able to provide definite (normative) answers to social questions, and thereby offering an acceptable system to solve disputes. If the people working with law would start doubting whether the conclusions they draw are indeed definite, generalizable and objective, they would undermine the authority of law itself. And it is this authority that makes law what it is: a powerful and relatively fair system that many people are willing to entrust with managing relations within society. Therefore lawyers and legal scientists might be hesitant to place too many question marks next to what and how they reason.

The different disciplinary approaches serve their purpose and therefore are valuable in and of themselves. But is there something to be gained from crossing the disciplinary boundaries? I would argue there is.  In my research on pollution problems in Indonesia, I initially focused on understanding the social relations between some of the key players in conflicts over pollution; the victims, the government and NGOs (and to a lesser extent the industries causing the pollution). The questions I posed and the methodology I used derived mostly from the social sciences.

In the course of the research I noticed the peculiar, toothless attitude of the government in responding to environmental problems. An explanation for this attitude, I discovered, could not only be found in ‘social science’ accounts, such as underlying power relations and corruption. The formulation of several articles in the Indonesian Environmental Law - that legally were in fact quite unsound - supported the reluctant attitude of the government to act against polluting industries. I was surprised to find that Indonesian environmental law experts had never noticed these legal mistakes. Instead they repeatedly told me that the problem was not the quality of the law, but the government’s reluctance to implement it.  Surprisingly even these lawyers assumed there was a social sciences type of explanation for the poor governance response to pollution issues. I am not sure why they had not analysed the law properly, but my guess is that they had not investigated the daily practices of officials at the governmental environmental agencies sufficiently (a social science method) to begin wondering about how these daily practices related to the law. By combining social and legal theory and methodology I was able to research different matters and provide new insights.

With this in mind, when I stand in front of my closet each morning, I now know what to wear: an Indonesian sarong as a scarf, colourful Chinese boots and a black, formal skirt.

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