Introduction to the blog symposium: The Socio-Legal Lab as a didactic format

by Lisa Hahn and Siddharth de Souza

Contemporary analyses of the stakes of legal sociology in Germany range from crisis to relaunch.[1] One symptom – and possible cause – of the proclaimed crisis is the lack of training opportunities and spaces for graduate students interested in conducting socio-legal research. In 2018, an initiative of graduate students called the Socio-Legal Lab was founded at Humboldt-University Berlin to address this gap. The Socio-Legal Lab is a doctoral student network and platform for peer-to-peer exchange on what it means to do socio-legal research. Through workshops[2], film screenings and informal get-togethers, the Socio-Legal Lab seeks to become a space that encourages conversations among researchers who are engaged in working at the interface of law and society. In this blog symposium, the Socio-Legal Lab will be presented as a teaching tool. The symposium is based on a summer school that was held at the Week of Methods organized by the Göttingen Graduate School of Social Sciences from July 22 to 25, 2019. This blog post provides an overview of the topics discussed during the workshop as well as an explanation of the didactic concept of the Lab. This symposium contains contributions from the participants that offer various perspectives on the Socio-Legal Lab as a didactic format.

 

A toolkit to study law and society in action

The overall aim of the Socio-Legal Lab is to provide a methodological toolkit that enables students and graduates to conduct their socio-legal research projects. We suggest four aspects that an introductory class or workshop on the study of law and society in action could cover:

  1. Basic questions of interdisciplinary legal research and theoretical debates in law and society could be introduced to provide students with an overview of the socio-legal landscape. This encompasses debates on what interdisciplinarity actually means and in which forms it can be practiced, as well as exploring dichotomies in socio-legal research such as “law” and “the social” or “macro” and “micro” studies.
  2. On a methodological level, reflections on processes of knowledge production, assumptions that we have as researchers and practical challenges of methodology in action could be useful.
  3. With regard to methods, students could be introduced to both quantitative and qualitative socio-legal research methods and their applicability to certain research questions.
  4. To ensure the outreach and impact of one’s research results, different ways of communicating research could also be introduced.

 

The Lab as a didactic format

Didactically, the ambition of such a space is to demystify methods by proposing a Lab as a learning technique. While formal method manuals are important for drafting a research design and understanding quality criteria in empirical research, they rarely prepare students for the messy reality of the research process, which is coupled with uncertainties and often accompanied by unexpected obstacles as well as opportunities. The idea of building a Lab-based atmosphere for thinking about research methods aims to encourage a different kind of mindset when working through the questions and challenges at the intersection of law and society. The aims are to overcome methodological anxieties and make the serendipity of methodology-in-action more tangible.[3] In this process, we wish to encourage learning by doing where participants have an opportunity not just to study theory, but also to brainstorm and imagine how theory could shape their research projects and how individual projects can contribute to knowledge production in general.

The function of the Lab therefore is:

  • To understand what kind of methods the participants intend to use.
  • To establish protocols for deciding when certain methods are suitable and others not.
  • To test different hypotheses and provide a safe environment for experimentation.
  • To experiment with different methods and theories and to build competency with research design.
  • To evaluate what works best in conversation and cooperation with others.

In this way, the Lab aims to create an environment that facilitates collaboration in research, to provide a communication space that is open and safe for wide-ranging discussions, and to create communities of support for researchers such that they feel empowered to voice their anxieties and to test and incubate new ideas.

 

Structure of the Lab

In covering the above topics in a Lab format, we suggest dividing each session of the course into three stages: information-gathering, framing and testing.

The first step in the Lab is information-gathering. This involves reading seminal texts about a particular issue, for example on matters related to interdisciplinarity and law, in order to understand how this could be incorporated in one’s own research. Next, the group examines examples of interdisciplinary projects to scrutinize how this work was carried out. Using such examples from research illustrates how a method can be applied, which challenges might arise, and how they could be solved.

The second step is to frame the discussions by identifying perspectives that look critically at the topic, and also raise questions regarding the context and positionality of those who were taking part.

The third step is to test the conclusions that have arisen during the information-gathering process and to explore them with the help of exercises that try to apply a particular method. This would involve exploring whether the project is feasible and what precautions need to be taken in practice to collect reliable data. It is precisely this last step that reveals the difference between methodology-in-the-book and methodology-in-action. For example, during the 2019 Lab, participants engaged in an exercise involving interview simulation, which raised numerous practical challenges that went beyond those addressed in best-practice interview guidelines on how to design a research questionnaire, formulate questions, and what interview techniques to use. For example, participants raised questions about how to stick to the questionnaire, manage their time, and conduct a conversation that reveals relevant information while avoiding suggestive questions. A well-designed simulation of this nature can reveal that all these possible problems encountered in qualitative research must be an integral part of designing and preparing for an interview.

 

Conditions for a successful Lab: interdisciplinarity and trust

Two overarching conditions contribute to an intensive exchange and collaborative learning atmosphere.

The first key element is the interdisciplinary composition of the course, which includes both legal scholars and researchers from other disciplines. In exercises applying different research methods, the cross-disciplinary exchange can lead to a change in perspective. This composition reveals the boundaries of one’s own perception which, through disciplinary socialization, asks only particular kinds of questions and focuses only on certain aspects of reality. During the 2019 Lab, this aspect became particularly visible in a simulation of courtroom ethnography. When introducing their notes, participants trained in law were surprised at what the social scientists saw and what remained unnoticed by them (facial expressions, seating orders, movements in the court), while legal scholars surprised social scientists by their attention to aspects of the procedures adopted in courts, and the structures of arguments used.

The second aspect is a collaborative learning atmosphere where all uncertainties in the research process can be discussed openly, confidentially and in a non-hierarchical manner. An integral part of the Lab-atmosphere is to ensure that there is sufficient room for discussion and conversation among the participants. To this end, several smaller exercises such as an academic version of the game two truths and one lie can be used to share research interests and create an open atmosphere for conversation, while simultaneously serving as ice-breakers. Further exercises help to unfold the implications of our work as researchers and the implicit assumptions we hold. In the 2019 Lab, we used memo-writing to reflect and verbalize our positions as researchers in relation to the social, cultural and political contexts of the research and our subjective experiences. This, we find, is indispensable for the essential reflection on what motivates us and how we position ourselves in our field of research. Moreover, in the 2019 workshop, all participants were given the opportunity to present the methods applied in their research to the group. This offered participants the opportunity to rethink their projects in methodological terms. For this, we proposed that students use the PechaKucha method to present their research. In terms of learning techniques for academic communication, this allowed participants to experiment with a presentation format where a research project is visualized through the use of images.

 

Outlook: A reflection on the 2019 Socio-Legal Lab

The contributions posted in this symposium reflect upon the participants’ experiences with the Socio-Legal Lab at the Göttingen Graduate School of Social Sciences in 2019.

The blog symposium begins with a piece by Victoria Guijarro, who examines the distinction between law in books and law in action, through a personal reflection on her studies in law in Germany and the challenges of finding appropriate methods for interdisciplinary work.

The next piece by Yingxin (Emma) He examines the aspect of the ‘gap’ in socio-legal studies, and proceeds to delve into ways to fill it. She uses examples from her own research in international criminal law to reflect on the impacts of her work for law-in-action.

Thereafter Inês Freixo looks at the use of interviews as a methodology for legal scholars to conduct their research. She reflects on how this is not a common occurrence in legal studies, and how it could be a useful technique to clarify and complement existing research.

In the final piece of this symposium, Saeed Ahmed offers an analysis of the role that space and place have in conducting one’s research. Through an examination of a case study from New Delhi, he provides insights into how his own methodological approaches changed as he spent more time in the field, and how observing contestations in his site of study influenced and shaped his research and methodological outlooks.

 

Lisa Hahn and Siddharth de Souza are PhD researchers at the Faculty of Law, Humboldt University of Berlin

 

[1] See for instance the debates on Rechtswirklichkeit. Das Blog des Berliner Arbeitskreises Rechtswirklichkeit, Blogsymposium: Die Zukunft der Rechtssoziologie, last accessed 12.10.2019.

[2] For reports on previous workshops see Hahn/de Souza, The Socio-Legal Lab: Beyond methods, 29.05.2018 and Hahn/de Souza, Self-reflecting, constructing and positioning: Intersecting debates in Socio-Legal Studies, 14.03.2019.

[3] Halliday & Schmidt, Conducting Law and Society Research. Reflections on Methods and Practices, 2009, pp. 2.


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