Wednesday, October 04, 2006

On Interdisciplinary Scholarship

Mark Graber

The most fundamental principle of interdisciplinary legal scholarship is that persons ought to know the scholarly literature on the subjects they write about. Before Ronald Dworkin declares that judicial supremacy has been settled since 1803 or Harold Spaeth writes about the history of the Supreme Court in the 19th century, they ought to crack open works on that subject written after 1960. If one is going to write on the original meaning of the 14th Amendment, one should read Judith Baer as well as Akhil Amar and Michael Kent Curtis. If one is going to claim that a legislature composed primarily of women would legalize abortion, one should read the relevant public opinion data. And, of course, if one is going to do a statistical study, one should do the study properly.

The great danger with claims of interdisciplinary ignorance and the great divide between political science and law is that disciplines are presented as far more homogeneous than they actual are. We sometimes hear, for example, that empirical legal studies consists of applying social science methods to legal problems. But whose social science methods are we talking about? Susan Burgess is a social scientist, as is Jeff Segal, but I rather think trying to figure out why the two of them are different from, say, Catharine McKinnon and David Currie, may not be the most interesting intellectual exercise. The truth is that disciplines are as internally divided as they are divided from other disciplines. One does not learn political science methodology, one learns the methods some political scientists use when solving certain kinds of problems. Indeed, with respect to political science and law, the new divide may be between those law professors and social scientists more sympathetic to behavioral approaches and those more interested in what has become known as historical institutionalism. The bright side is that because people on different sides of the fence are in different disciplines, there is likely to be more cross-fertilization than was previously the case. The down side is that to the extent people in one discipline get self-interested messages that all scholarship in a particular discipline is X they may not become aware of or take seriously good scholarship in that discipline relevant to their concerns that is Y. Put differently, interdisciplinary scholarship has the potential to narrow as well as broaden horizons.

The bottom line ought to be that, increasingly, persons located in different parts of the universe have come to realize either that they are thinking about similar problems or that, at least, that they have interesting things to say to each other. When we wander into a different building, however, we always wander into particular offices. I do not learn "law in all its majesty" from Jack Balkin, any more than he has learned what there is to know about political science from conversations with me. All we can do is borrow particular tools from the other. What those tools are will depend on our interests and our projects. The last thing we need is for interdisciplinary scholarship to become a discipline with rules we can use to exclude others (which is not to say that the academy might be better structured to promote interdisciplinary legal projects).


Professor Graber,

You post reminds me of something I think I recall seeing at Professor Solum's Legal Theory Blog regarding the establishment of a canon (I *think* that's where I saw it.) Just thought your comments were in line with such an effort and that maybe you would mention a tome or two that you think would belong in a canon of Interdisciplinary Scholarship vis a vis law and polisci?

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