JSTOR and Interdisciplinary Research

The degree of interdisciplinarity in legal scholarship these days is staggering. Not long ago, it was common for professors in social science disciplines to find themselves surprised by the insularity of legal scholarship on a subject that seemed out of touch with state-of-the-art research in specialized disciplines on the same subject. Today, even law students draw heavily from social science in writing their journal comments, and it is routine for work by JD-only academics to be filled with citations to social science research and engage empirical work from multiple disciplines.

Why the dramatic change? Of course, the answer is multi-faceted, and a very important factor is the changing composition of law faculties. The number of faculty with Ph.D. backgrounds has increased a great deal, bringing with them social science-oriented research and expertises that have changed the way everyone conducts legal scholarship. But there is a much simpler factor that is easy to overlook, but I’d argue is equally important—searchable Internet databases like JSTOR.

Not long ago, interdisciplinary research in the social sciences could be a considerable labor. I know from experience. A dozen years ago, even the task of writing a literature review in political science was an undertaking in itself. First, you had to gather up citations from whatever available literature reviews came closest to your topic. Then, it made good sense to head off to the library and look up your topic in the indices for the major journals of the field to copy down any additional sources. Finally, you had to find the hard copies of all your sources in the bound volumes of those journals, skim them quickly, and figure out in the library which ones were worth copying and which weren’t. You had to hand copy the keepers at the library by feeding what seemed like an endless stream of quarters into the nearest photocopy machine. Not hard labor in prison, but several days worth of work, and not terribly accessible to those outside your field.

Today, we have JSTOR, Hein Online, and a bunch of electronic databases that allow you to search and print out from your desktop. Even someone with virtually no knowledge about some other field of social science can dive into the literature within seconds of typing in a text search into one of these databases. And what used to take days, over several trips to the library, now may take less than an hour without leaving your chair. Anyone writing serious scholarship would be a fool not to take advantage of the wealth of information from other fields waiting at your fingertips. When we think about the interdisciplinary trend in law, it’s easy to forget the degree to which these changes in technology, which we now so take for granted, have contributed to interdisciplinary scholarship.

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1 Response

  1. Of course, given that Western European law’s roots are much better fitted within the humanities than the contemporary social sciences — witness the fact that many of the medieval and Renaissance humanists who crafted the educational program known as the studia humanitatis were lawyers — it bears mention that interdisciplinary legal scholarship should to my mind make use of humanities’ methods and scholarship as well as social science work.

    I am reasonably sure you would not disagree, but as your post only mentions interdisciplinary work in context of the social sciences, it seemed to me to be prudent to make the point lest anyone be led astray by exclusio unius.

    And, of course, JSTOR is rich in humanities scholarship.