By Flora Renz and Clare Williams (University of Kent)
The ways we do, talk, and think about socio-legal research have fundamentally shifted. State and University responses to Covid-19 have disrupted sites of power and privilege, of inclusion and exclusion, of access to resources and ability to be heard. Our approaches to research practices have shifted as a consequence. While research across the social sciences has adapted rapidly to substantively explore new practices and structures, questions of how we go about socio-legal research (methodology and epistemology) remain largely unaddressed. To investigate some of these issues we organised a one-day virtual conference sponsored by the SLSA on the 21st September 2021. The event had been widely publicised, and we were delighted to present eight papers split across three panels, with two keynote presentations. Over 140 people had registered for the event, and we had an audience of 40-65 across the entire day, confirming the need for events that support and connect the sociolegal community given the upheavals of the past two years.
The event was truly global, with speakers from Australia, South Africa, The Netherlands, Colombia, Norway, and the UK. Our first panel explored issues of inequality and feminism, and common themes of transformative justice and resistance during the pandemic. Felicity Adams and Fabienne Emmerich spoke about their experience of doing collaborative research in the context of Abolition Feminism. While Nora Honkala reflected on the impact the pandemic had on academic mothers who were often forced to juggle childcare and working responsibilities simultaneously due to Covid. Finally, Charlene Tsitsi Musiza spoke about her experience of shifting her research methods in response to the pandemic from face-to-face interviews to virtual focus groups with members of the Tonga community. Our first keynote was delivered by Suhraiya Jivraj who premiered her film “We Were Never Meant to Survive: Legal Racism”, and who was joined by filmmakers Maria D’Amico and Kuran Javeri. This powerful film enabled a frank and honest discussion about the ongoing work of decolonisation within the academe.
Our second panel explored questions of how to build trust and develop relationships from behind a computer screen, and allowed speakers to share their experiences of coordinating research projects when meeting those involved is impossible. Veronica Fikfak reflected on what it takes to successfully create a research team, and how existing considerations and research around this require further reflection with the shift to remote working. Along similar lines Adriana Rudling and Angelika Rettburg (also representing Eric Wiebelhaus-Brahm and Mohamed Sesay) used the pandemic as a moment in which to reflect on North-South research partnerships and the particular role of activist-practicioners. Erin Jackson rounded of this panel by reflecting on emerging findings from her research on the ‘digital dimension’ of European Judicial Networking. Amanda Perry-Kessaris then delivered our second keynote by drawing together the indeterminacies highlighted in all the papers and offering an alternative, design-based approach to sociolegal problems. The discussion covered the practical application of an experimental approach to different research problems.
Finally, our third panel turned to questions of access and accessibility, both to research participants and to inaccessible sociolegal research itself. Angela Kintominas spoke about how Covid had affected her experience of researching migrant domestic workers and the challenges of interviewing in a context where interviewees often live where they work. This was followed by Paul-Georg Ender discussing the role of digital accessibility in the doing of socio-legal research and the particular challenges disabled scholars have faced and continue to face.
While the papers were grouped thematically across panels, common themes emerged from the day. These include resistance and transformative justice, or the desire to recraft society in the wake of the disruption of the pandemic. The indeterminacies of researching in an uncertain context, along with sharing the honest experiences of others can be uncomfortable, but can bring about new insights and deeper understanding. And finally, there was a consensus that, while the dust is still settling from the Covid-related disruption to socio-legal research, we are seeing the emergence of new research foci and cultures, and of techniques and methodologies more suited to the current landscape.