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Linking Scholarship to Policy and Social Change

by Richard Abel and Louise Trubek

History and Critique
Law and society research emerged at a moment when social activism and post-war prosperity coincided to foster hope for progressive social change. The founders of the Law and Society Association believed that socio-legal scholarship could improve social policy and facilitate advocacy. They hoped to build linkages between scholars, policy makers and advocates. Since then skepticism about the efficacy of law (especially judicial decisions) (e.g., Rosenberg), criticism of “regnant” lawyering (Lopez), and disillusion with liberal legalism (critical legal studies) combined to dampen the earlier optimism. Instead of seeking how to make law more effective, researchers exposed law’s perverse consequences (e.g., racial disparities in criminal justice, harsh punishment, no-fault divorce, homophobia, immigration control, criminalizing drugs, limiting abortion, “ending” welfare, deregulation). Critics warned of the dangers of policy-relevant research. Abel argued that “gap” studies privileged law’s normative choices over others and took for granted that law could, and should, produce clearly defined behavioral consequences. Sarat and Silbey cautioned against allowing the “policy audience” to prescribe the research agenda for law and society. And some progressives questioned the value of research altogether because it could delegitimize efforts to reduce inequality.

Yet the commitment to making research relevant to social change appears on the LSA website today, which describes the mission as Analyzing legal practice, envisioning social justice. So what is to be done? There are seven challenges:

  1. State dominance: Because policy-relevant research tends to privilege state actors, post-modernists may avoid it. But the revival of interest in civil society has shown that non-state actors are often as or more important to the advancement of policy goals. Rather than jettisoning policy studies, socio-legal scholars should examine the role of non-state actors in shaping and pursuing policy goals.
  2. Tunnel vision: An uncritical concern for policy relevance can narrow our focus to the achievement or frustration of the goals of state actors. But law can have much broader ramifications: shaping consciousness, empowering or disempowering individuals and groups, legitimating or delegitimating (e.g., McCann).
  3. Politics as well as policy: We need to understand the politics of why policies succeed or fail.
  4. False neutrality: Avowals of policy relevance can let researchers to hide behind the normative preferences of state actors, presenting a façade of value neutrality. Researchers should have the courage of their convictions. Unlike lawyers, they cannot claim to be hired guns. Researchers’ explicit acknowledgement of their own moral positions allows others to challenge their premises and conclusions.
  5. Parochialism: Policy studies often focus too narrowly on actions in one polity. But other nations embrace different goals and use different means to pursue them. In order to avoid parochialism, policy-relevant research should be more comparative
  6. Narrowed perspective: Researchers may eschew policy studies as overly cautious, meliorist, short-term. But there is a role in policy studies for utopianism, the articulation of hopes not immediately realizable. Policy relevant research should imagine alternative futures and how they might be prefigured. It should explore contradictions within dominant structures, which offer opportunities for counter-hegemonic action (Unger). Campaigns for social change should plan for decades (cf. NAACP).
  7. The pull of quantitative methods: Because policy makers tend to have fixed, narrowly conceived agendas, they prefer positivist methodologies, which purport to provide unambiguous advice about how to advance the state’s objectives. But there are many ways to do research, ranging from big data to interpretation and community-based studies. Interpretive methods can offer a deeper, more comprehensive understanding of social action.

Looking ahead: Concrete Proposals
Can we develop ways to connect research to policy audiences? Can we bring researchers and policy advocates together locally and globally? Can we use evaluation and data collection tools to illuminate policy and practice? Here are some projects LSA and other socio-legal groups might develop with support from foundations and agencies:

  1. Identify successful collaborations: Identify models of successful collaborations between university-based researchers, advocates, and policy makers and communicate “best practices” through the LSA website and other media.
  2. Promote dialogic networks:  Locate government agencies and NGOs interested in research and evaluation and bring them together with researchers in networks that foster dialog about means, ends, and results.
  3. Develop translational skills: Create programs to train scholars to communicate their findings more effectively and teach advocates to become more sophisticated consumers of research. Organize workshops that will show researchers how to communicate findings in sparkling prose for publication in a variety of media and advocates how to use research and identify research partners.

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