Kevin J. Brown is Lecturer in Law at Newcastle University.
Twelve months ago, when I was applying for my first permanent lectureship, I was advised by colleagues to market myself as a ‘socio-legal scholar’. This it was argued would improve my chances of success. I believe this was good advice as in a number of interviews the label was positively referenced, particularly in the institution that was to offer me my current post. The main reason for this enthusiasm is that interviewers associate the label with the potential for the person to bring in money via research funding (I am most probably attempting to lay a golden egg as you read this!) But what is it to be a ‘socio-legal scholar’ and how does this impact on how I understand the law and for the purposes of this blog ‘human rights’ law?
Contested definitions of the term ‘socio-legal’ exist. I once attended an acrimonious committee meeting which debated the meaning of the term for two hours without agreement, with a number of individuals keen to argue that they not others were truly socio-legal. From a personal perspective, I define myself as ‘socio-legal’ because my research relies upon sociological methods and theories to understand the law and its application. In particular, I am concerned with ‘law in action’, how it is used and why it is used. My research is empirical in that I go into the field to study the law. Despite the sociological influences, most of my formal education has been traditionally legal. My background is that I have a LLB, followed by a professional legal training course and then a PhD in law and socio-legal studies. I teach law. I have taught human rights law among other traditional legal subjects. Such a background is typical of many socio-legal scholars in the UK and Ireland. This mix of ‘socio’ and ‘legal’ can leave one feeling a little like an outcast at times. In the company of my ‘proper’ sociologist colleagues, I occasionally feel like a lawyer who is dabbling in sociology, whilst when chatting to doctrinal lawyers I sometimes feel like a sociologist who dabbles in law. In teaching and researching the criminal justice system, I find myself sometimes thinking with my legal mind and at others my sociological one, on occasion I manage successfully to combine the two.
If I am honest, for me the discourse and concepts associated with ‘human rights’ are often restricted to my legal mindset. I can happily converse in seminars on such-and-such an ECHR article or protocol, but when I come to research law in action I rarely think to refer to human rights provisions. In part, this is because I find that much that is written on human rights is too rigidly doctrinal and preoccupied with the minutiae of interpretation to provide assistance in my empirical research. But more so, because like many modern socio-legal researchers, I have been influenced in my work by theoretical frameworks such as Foucauldian governmentality analysis. Such frameworks provide a way of describing and critiquing law in action in a way that tends to sideline more traditional legal concerns of due process and procedural human rights. It is not that I believe the human rights implications of the actions of legal actors do not matter, but rather in my research I tend to focus on answering different questions about their actions. I believe this is true of many colleagues particularly within the criminology field. In a recent edited collection on anti-social behaviour, which I have to hand, I have found not a single substantive reference to ‘human rights.’
In the writing of this blog post, I have found myself thinking about my recent research and how I could have approached it from a ‘human rights’ perspective. I am sure that it would have added a dimension to my work, without necessarily requiring me to put my other more commonly relied upon theoretical frameworks aside. In the future, this will I hope be a task with which I will engage. If this blog post is to have a point and I suppose it should, it would be to ask those of you who would happily label yourselves ‘human rights specialists’ to encourage your socio-legal and criminological colleagues to think about human rights issues in their research (I freely admit that not all need such encouragement but some of us do). I would also encourage collaborative research endeavours to generate a stronger synergy between the socio-legal and human rights fields (again I recognise that such research does already take place in some institutions). At the end of the day, both human rights and socio-legal scholars have as a concern the impact of laws on humanity and this provides us with an excellent starting point for positive engagement.