By Steve Crawford, PhD Candidate, Kent Law School, University of Kent
Professor Amanda Perry-Kessaris (Kent Law School) has recently launched an online open access project calling for a tangible and visible aspect to socio-legal research: Sociolegal Model Making https://amandaperrykessaris.org/
As a colleague at the Kent Law School I have benefitted greatly in my own development as a legal researcher through the opportunities presented as part of the development of this project. I have been able to participate in workshops, researcher seminars and conference presentations; in addition I have been afforded opportunities to develop events of my own, through drawing upon my earlier experiences as a participant. Alongside the visualisation approaches central to these model making projects significant importance is placed upon self-reflection.
Model makers asked to ‘construct’, or represent, either part or all of their research project, they are additionally required to separately spend time reflecting upon that process. Not only what their finished model may be, but how it came to be as it is and why they have represented their work in this way. From a personal perspective this reflective aspect to the model making approach is perhaps the most important. Although the idea is to make research visible and tangible, it is this more intangible element that provides the most lasting influence.
All good socio-legal research aims to expressly and centrally connect law to society as a social process and practice. This can clearly be understood as a reflection upon law and upon society. However, what can often be missed is personal reflection upon the nature of the methods employed to undertake socio-legal research. Despite the difficult history in establishing the field of study it can, at times, feel as if methodological development can be prone to stagnation. My argument is not that current socio-legal methods are not fit for purpose. Rather, my suggestion is that a point may have been reached at which they are no longer so closely scrutinised. Instead of the focus being upon how individual researchers might address specific studies, it can at times feel that there already exists an ‘off the peg’ methodological approach ready for deployment to any eventuality. An approach that is already understood and ‘pre-approved’ by the wider socio-legal community.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but it can lead to complacency. As a current PhD student when challenged upon my methodology my aim is provide information as to what approach I am taking and how and where I am applying it. This looks normal and unproblematic. However, surely the primary consideration should be how I understand and utilise the research method(s) for my project? By including, and expressly completing, a reflective element to consideration of research method, or project design, researchers focus on methodological approaches, but also upon their own place within the project. Not only should this help to provide a fuller personal understanding of their work, but could it not also provide impetus for reconsidering methodological practice? At the same time questioning whether further development of this field might be required, as opposed to looking for best existing fit?
This is not to say that this practice does not already occur. I was lucky enough to attend a session of the research methods stream at the 2017 SLSA annual conference and to witness three engaging presentations and dynamic conversations about innovative methodological approaches and creative uses of more established methodology. As eluded to above this does not necessarily transfer to my experiences as a developing researcher, nor anecdotally to the experiences of my peers. I regularly feel as if questions of methodology are to be side-stepped, shut down or by-passed, other colleagues have echoed these thoughts. Rather than addressing these questions head on in an open investigation, I find myself expressing my personal research through the frameworks of others approaches. All too often this is because I feel unable to express my own thoughts because I lack a sufficient depth and texture to my understanding.
As mentioned above, alongside participating in socio-legal model making events, I have been lucky enough to co-ordinate several. I have now worked with legal researchers and students from a wide range of (primarily, but not exclusively) European institutions at workshops run at the Sciences Po and Paris Nanterre Intensive Doctoral Week 2017, and the Faculté de Droit, Université Savoie Mont Blanc; I have also worked with researchers from throughout the social sciences faculty of my own university through the centralised graduate school. Each time I have been struck by the clarity of understanding that I have been able to take from discussion of research methods. Remarkable, to me, considering the language and disciplinary boundaries being crossed.
I can only surmise from my experience that there is something in the self-reflective understanding of one’s own research project that is highlighted through the model-making process. That this something is itself highlighted through reflection upon the personal process of model-making. This leads me to consider that there may be utility to all researchers in taking the time to reflect personally upon research method and practice. To really ask how well I understand, not to always focus on how well others (might) understand. Socio-legal model making seems to provide a perfect platform through which undertake this reflection.
Building the person in to contractual understanding of surrogacy,
Université Savoie Mont Blanc 23 November 2017.
Visualising comparative methodologies for understanding the Psychology of guilt, 3D Modelling of Social Science Research, University of Kent 6 November 2017.
 Many of these events are documented in the external links of the above website. Including the Legal Treasure Workshop 2017, and the Pop-up Museum of Legal Object stream at the 2017 SLSA annual conference. See, the recent special issue of Northern Ireland Legal Quarterly: The Pop-Up Museum of Legal Objects (2017) 68 (3) NILQ.
 As examples of difficulty and resistance see: Reza Banakar and Max Travers, ‘Law, Sociology and Method’ in Banakar & Travers (eds), Theory and Method in Socio-Legal Research (Hart 2005); Roger Cotterrell, ‘Why Must Legal Ideas Be Interpreted Sociologically?’ (1998) 25 (2) Journal of Law and Society 171.