Legal Dissertations

Mon, 11/24/2008
4:30-6 PM, Kerstetter Room, Marx Hall
Event Category: 
Graduate Students

This week's LEGS meeting will feature a workshop on legal dissertations.   What are legal dissertations?    These are dissertations about law, where the “law” component of the dissertation takes you outside the usual comfort zone of your discipline.     How does law do this?    Often, the materials  us law-folk work with are “mandarin” materials – court decisions, laws, debates over constitutionalism, issues in the rule of law.    And in many disciplines, “studying up” is frowned upon in favor of “studying down” or daily life takes precedence over big political questions as a preferred topic.     

Law can push you outside your discipline because you may have to learn law just to study what you want to.    What if you work in court archives?   Do you have to know about law to understand what you find – or can you imagine you’re just getting a slice of life without the law?    What if you do fieldwork in legal settings – courts, lawyers’ offices, police stations?  Do you have to know as much law as the people you are studying to make sense of what they know?    What if you are doing law and literature studies?  Do you really have to know the law in these texts yourself?    

 In other disciplines, it’s crucial to get a “representative” sample of something to study, and the legal world catches such a weird skew of the world that it practically guarantees the atypical.     Even within legal institutions, one often finds the best documentation of the most unrepresentative cases – the ones that came to trial, got a judgment on the merits and then were appealed at least once.    Legal cases are many things – but typical they are not.    

Along the same lines, what about using legal sources and materials as the basis for quantitative study?    Often, statistical methods rely on the independence of the cases that one counts.  But in law, cases are not really independent, bound together as they are in lines of precedent and in hierarchies of authority.    

For those who study criminal law issues, law takes researchers outside their comfort zone in  a different way.   In a world of IRBs and informed consent, how do researchers study those who break the law?  Once in the sights of the police or behind bars, it becomes possible to study them.  But before they are caught?  Or while they are thinking about but have not yet committed the crime?   Researchers are caught awkwardly complicit with illegal conduct and so the older traditions of criminological research prominent before the days of IRBs have disappeared.   

In political theory and philosophy, normative questions arise often – but legal theory shadows them all the way along.   And legal theory may part company with the other methods of normative reasoning, in part because legal solutions can rest on procedural reasons (e.g. not enough evidence; the case is not ripe; someone else has responsibility for deciding the case) and in part because legal solutions generally rely on preexisting legal categories and concepts.  Other normative fields are freer to invent and wander than is law.    What then for the political theorists and philosophers who focus on law? 

Even studying people who are thinking about filing cases can get a researcher into trouble.  What if one’s field notes are discoverable – precisely because one has studied things that can turn into lawsuits?   What if a researcher is subpoenaed to testify at a trial based on what a respondent told her?   It’s a risk all empirical researchers run, but it’s a risk much bigger precisely when one is studying law  in the first place.    In short, hanging out in the vicinity of the law raises all sorts of important research questions that LAPA can help you to think about. 

So – we’ll take up these questions and more about how to get dissertations framed, researched and written when they have to do with law.    This goes with the discussion we had last time about the multiple job markets – because along with all of these questions, there is also the question of who precisely the audience is for what you write.  If you’re thinking about the law school job market, you may want a different sort of dissertation than you would otherwise write.