December 14, 2006
"Interdisciplinary" Research in Law
Posted by Gordon Smith

Over the weekend, I heard a very skeptical account of the value of interdisciplinary research on law. When I returned to my office, I found an email from Danny Sokol, drawing my attention to this article by Anthony D'Amato. Count D'Amato among the skeptics regarding the "interdisciplinary turn" in legal education.

D'Amato begins by asking, "why collaborate?" Interdisciplinary collaboration could have one of two goals, D'Amato observes: division of labor (the collaborators "work separately in solving those
pieces of the [puzzle] that are susceptible to their own expertise") and emergence (the production of "an original idea or a solution to an important legal problem" from an "expected synergy and two-way feedback between the two collaborating disciplines"). D'Amato asserts:

The first type accounts for over 99% of all useful cross-disciplinary collaborations, not only in law but in every field of human study. But it is the second category, emergence, that excites our imagination and motivates faculty appointments committees to prioritize joint-degreed candidates.

The most interesting part of the paper arises from D'Amato's attempt to show the unlikelihood of producing emergent idea through interdisciplinary work. Much of the paper is caricature, but it is entertaining caricature. For example, he compares disciplines to cults ("Disciplines and sects share the trait that their primary audiences are themselves") and suggests that this insularity results in an inability to communicate with outsiders:

Given the impetus of any given discipline toward gussying up its talk, do we have any rational basis for assuming that if we put two disciplinarians in the same room they can usefully engage in collaboration? How, if at all, can two different disciplines communicate synergistically with each other to produce an emergent idea?

The flaw here, to my mind, is that D'Amato assumes law is a separate "discipline" in a very particular sense of that word. Though he never defines the term "discipline," it is easy enough to see his meaning in this passage: "any given discipline will inevitably provide an answer to any question because it must maintain its privileged view of the world—even if the answer is that thequestion itself is trivial or not worth asking."

Is law a "discipline" in this sense? Or does law necessarily depend on other disciplines? My colleagues Marc Galanter and Mark Edwards wrote in 1997:

[A]ll concur that the legal world is not to be understood on its own terms, but requires the application of some method or substance provided by other disciplines. A consensus that legal activity was to be explained and understood as the product of exogenous forces displaced the long-challenged but resilient faith that law was an autonomous realm that could be comprehended by study of authoritative legal texts.

Under that view, emergent ideas about law are not only possible, but they are the likely result of "interdisciplinary" research. And by now don't we have enough such ideas in inventory that D'Amato's argument is passé?

UPDATE: Having been consumed by other matters -- like exam writing -- I missed the fact that the blogosphere was all over this article. Josh Wright take D'Amato to task for his dismissive view of the effect of economics on antitrust. Dan Markel and Mary Dudziak are also skeptical of D'Amato's argument. They all found the article through Brian Leiter (who, as long as I'm at it, also links to some laugh-out-loud videos from the Harvard Econ Department).

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