Law and Interdisciplinary Scholarship (or the advantages of being an intellectual weakling with a big budget)

microscope.gifOmar over at has a facinating post on why interdisciplinary scholarship is a “permanently failing academic ‘social movement.'” (I would be curious to hear if Laura has any thoughts on the application of his ideas to her question about Law & Humanities.) He writes:

Interdisciplinarity seldom has highly legitimate and powerful constituents, instead relying on loose and shifting congeries of dominated and relatively powerless coalitions of knowledge producers. Because these people seldom have the ears of the people that control the purse-strings of academia, you tend to observe “loose-coupling” between rhetoric and everyday activities, with everybody (including administrators in an attempt to appease some of their most vociferous pro-inter-dis colleagues) toeing the politically correct line of “calling” for “further” (always deferred to sometime in the undefined immediate future) interdisciplinary work, while “making a living” (or handing the big jobs to people) producing strong disciplinary work.

Basically, he sees interdisciplinary work as facing two hurdles. First, the production of scholars and more importantly their placement occurs within an institutional framework that sharply channels scholars into disciplinary work. Second, intellectually self-confident disciplines (Omar gives the examples of economics and political science) see no real benefit from interdisciplinary work, which tends to be pushed by “weaker” less confident disciplines such as history or anthropology.

If Omar’s analysis is correct, it seems to me that law ought to be the happy hunting ground for interdisciplinary scholarship. First, the institutional structures that produce legal academics are extremely weak in comparison to other disciplines. There is nothing in law comparable to the socialization and specialization imposed on most scholars by graduate programs. Accordingly, doing interdisciplinary work in law has fewer costs because it involves a less clear cut deviation from established norms. Second, law is an intellectually weak discipline in the sense that legal scholars suffer from a permanent intellectual inferiority complex, in part as a result of their diffuse academic training and in part as a result of the post-realist loss of faith in the autonomy of the law. Accordingly, we’re more like the intellectually weak disciplines such as history than self-confident disciplines such as economics but with one important difference. Unlike history or anthropology, law is not an institutionally weak discipline. Thanks to ABA accreditation standards and the the (admittedly weak) competition between law schools and the profession for good legal minds, law schools tend to have excellent research resources and high salaries.

Yet another reason I am glad that I am a law prof…

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5 Responses

  1. In Nate Oman’s view, history is an “intellectually weak discipline,” as compared to economics, a “self-confident” one. He borrows this from another blog, but repeats and signs on to the characterization in his post. The evidence? A summary statement on another blog.

    There are useful discussions to have about interdisciplinarity, as Anthony D’Amato has shown in his (nevertheless IMHO) wrong-headed recent SSRN paper on the topic, but we don’t get very far by characterizing one field as “self-confident” and another robust and important part of the academy as, well,….

    Prof. Oman is welcome to come on over to the Legal History Blog where our “intellectual weakness” is regularly on display.

  2. Nate Oman says:

    Prof. Dudziak: I think that your response is unduly defensive. Omar’s point is that history — unlike economics, say — lacks widespread methodological agreement about its core explanatory concepts and therefore is more permeable to interdisciplinary approaches. He is not saying that historians are stupid. The point seems rather commonplace to me.

    For myself, I think legal history is an important field. I blog regularlly (too much for some of my co-bloggers I suspect) on historical topics. I am a member of a the American Society for Legal History and subscribe to Law & History Review. I have written directly on legal history as well as including a great deal of historical material (too much I am told by some) in theoretical pieces. I have no problem with history.

    I do think that history lacks a set of powerful explanatory ideas. In some ways this is a weakness and in some ways it is a strength, as it authorizes historians to wallow in the particularity of the pasts that they discover, an activity with its own virtues.

  3. Nate,

    If you don’t mind, and I do not mean this as a challenge, could you say a bit more about why you think “history lacks a set of powerful explanatory ideas”?

  4. Nate Oman says:

    It seems to me that to the extent that historians try to account for the events that they document in terms of some broader, more generally applicable theory they fall back on ideas developed elsewhere, e.g. Marxism, sociology, neoclassical economics, etc. Unlike economists or sociologists, I don’t see that historians are primarily interested in generating generalized theories of human behavior. Rather, I take it that their primary concern is to provide a narrative of past events on the basis of documents, a difficult task requiring a great deal of skill, to be sure, but somewhat different than the task of providing general theories of human behavior. I realize, of course, that one cannot identify history with the vice of mere antiquirianism. On the other hand, in my experience historians are eager to emphasize the nuance and particularity of the topics they study, rather than suppressing that nuance to construct a broader theory. I think that this is an important thing to do, but I also think that it runs the risk of dissolving into a sterile nominalism. Any theory can be met with the objection that it lacks nuance, since one of the functions of theories is to suppress detail — nuance — in order to reveal causal or other underlyng structures. For this reason, the objection can become trivial.

  5. Fair enough. The particularity of history is likely the reason I love it as much as I do, as I think the search for broader theories is itself a mischievous legacy of modernity (And, like you, much of my work involves historical considerations; history of medicine is my minor in my graduate program).

    I do tend to disagree with you that seeking “generalized theories of human behaviour” is a chief criterion of having “powerful explanatory ideas,” as I think the particularity and nuance resonant in the best academic histories derive much of their explanatory power precisely from the particularity of the narratives adduced.

    And I also think it’s inriguing to note your inclusion of Marxism as an example of an idea that historians fall back on given the central nature of Hegel’s dialectic and philosophy of history to Marx’s musings. One might plausibly go so far as to say that without theorizing about history, there’d be no Marxism at all, or at least it would look very different than it currently does.