4 ways lawyers turned my assumptions on their head

I’ve been working at the Tilburg Institute of Law and Technology for a month and half now, and several times my jaw has practically dropped through the floor – not as a reflection of this awesome institute but more at the shock of uncovering how deep some of my own assumptions were. Chatting with lawyers has really challenged several of my assumptions about what it means to do research, to be an academic, and what is important to look at.

I firmly believe that asking questions and accepting you don’t know everything is the only way to actually know more. Which requires admitting a certain vulnerability, and generally makes you a nicer person to work with because you can still know your shit but remain humble.


The shock of disciplinary differences

It’s incredibly exciting to work as a social scientist in a law-dominated environment. I’d expected to learn a lot, and I am, though of course I could not have anticipated learning the things I have. Which, funnily enough, are a lot about methodology. The importance of methodology seems to be a lot on my mind recently – see a previous post on how methodology relates to ethical research and this tweet for, well, general astonishment.

It’s not the first time that I am confronted with the gaping assumptions of my own discipline. Previously I worked at the department of geography urban development and international development studies at the University of Amsterdam. It was heavily influenced by human geography and anthropology as disciplines. When I first joined the department as a masters student, it was a shock to my system because I’d done my bachelors in a postivist psychology department, and talking with cultural anthropologists about the meaning of science and truth was rather a revelation.

It can actually make you question everything you think you know – not only because of the assumptions statements are based on, but also because of the ways that those truths are arrived at. This is a big part of what motivated my work on flood management and how to get different communities of experts to actually speak the same language.

But on to the fun stuff:

What I’ve learnt from lawyers

I am still learning, so this might be totally way off, but they’re my first impressions coming into a new field.

1. Research is not necessarily empirical.

From psychology to development studies, my understanding of research was very much about ‘doing’ something. Either you create an experiment and calculate the stats (quantitative), or you go out into the world and talk to people and analyze the text (quantitative). Mass over simplifications but you get the idea.

So imagine my surprise when I realised that there are whole swathes of rigorous researchers who focus on ‘black letter law’, i.e. really looking at the what the law says and how to interpret it.  Desk research is still research, and does not neccesarily require ‘fieldwork’.

It’s still a bit of a shock because so much of my research history has been around how to do/carry out/organise/analyse empirical work.  Personally, it feels a bit empty with out it.


I can imagine that this must change the dynamics of how you build your network as a scholar.

2. Analytical is not necessarily better than descriptive.

The idea being that analytical work takes an analytical framework, a theory which strings together two concepts, which could then be used as a lens to look at the empirical data. In my masters, this critical perspective was very much a process if ‘elevating’ the work, and when I finally understood the difference between descriptive and analytical work it was a major step forward in my work.

So recently a colleague made a comment that they only wanted analytical and not descriptive work. To me this was incredibly self evident and the fact that they’d said it could only have been a benefit for up-and-coming researchers to understand the difference.

What I hadn’t expected was for this to stir quite a discussion from my lawyer colleagues. The response was: ‘If there’s no room for description was is the point of lawyers?

This was earth-shatteringly groundbreaking. See, a large part is to see how the law is to be interpreted in relation with the other parts of the law and with society itself. This requires substantial description, and the ‘analytical framework’ becomes redundant in the exercise.

Different purposes, different approaches.

It also means that there is a distinctly different ‘flavour’ to styles of writing articles – with an emphasis on logical structure and argumentation, more often than not the legal articles i’ve read are structured in a much more linear way, rather than narratively, as you find more frequently in social sciences. That said, I have still to read a lot of legal work, so this may be a totally flimsy statement.

3. Not all textual analysis is about revealing the narrative

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised with my background in cognitive psychology, where we studied al ot about the structure of language and breaking down meaning into specific units to be rearranged as a reflection of the workings of the mind.

Image result for narrative cartoon

Still, working in social science, the idea of a discourse is incredibly central to explaining how we make sense of the world. We have visions or stories that we aspire to and these stories, the narrative, shapes how we talk about something and as a result what opportunities we see to solving the problem. Personally I find it fascinating to reveal these discourses, there’s something primal about it.

Yet rather than focusing on the overarching narratives that shape the meanings of how we talk, lawyers have a tendency to analyse language in a very different, almost microscopic way: with an incredibly detailed focus on the meanings and interpretations of individual words. There is a reason for each, specific word, that can be unpacked for why we use that word and not another. And it matters.

While you find this in the social sciences too – we should use this word and not that – the way of using individual words as a unit of anlaysis almost instinctively has been a completely different approach that what I’m used to.

4. Being an engaged scholar means keeping really up-to-date with the news

Perhaps this is slightly biased because I am in a department that a) is top-notch, and b) where everybody’s work is being reshaped by the upcoming General Data Protection Regulation, which is changing all the things.

However, the lawyers that I’ve been speaking to are all incredibly engaged with current affairs. Following the new regulations and debates around them, writing in public arenas commentaries, keeping up to date with the proposed changes from government, etc. All logical, engaged things.

Not everybody is like this. Some people work on historical events. Some people hear the off-cuff thing. And that’s fine. But in this case, people are working on something with direct, immediate relevance, and there is something incredibly powerful about that and the role that it brings to academia.

And it is deemed relevant not just by scholars but also by everyday people. Questions of data governance are all the rage precisely because we can see for ourselves, as citizens and consumers and persons, that the world is changing before our eyes and we feel like we’re losing our grip just a wee tad. That’s why I’m on twitter more than ever before, so much to learn.

It’s inspiring to have this injection of relevance and urgency. But that’s for another discussion, methinks.


 Did I miss something?

Dear new colleagues – don’t take it personally, I’m finding the meeting of disciplinary boundaries incredibly fascinating 😉

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