Standalone modules and dissertations
The questionnaire elicited details of a number of standalone modules specifically addressing the sociology of law or socio-legal studies. At the seminar, a discussion of the types of sociology of law modules that are offered suggested that these may not include a large element of empirical work, but tended to be more theoretically based.
Another form of standalone module that did not have a specific subject content was the 'law-in-action' type module. Two were mentioned in responses to the questionnaire as including an empirical element. Such modules involved students working with community and other groups, often including some form of action research. It was noted in a response to the questionnaire that in the module at Keele, which was only in its first year, 'empirical evidence was drawn on regularly by the students in preparing their research projects'.
The two chapters in Part I focusing on standalone modules both describe examples of socio-legal modules that address empirical legal research. They provide a contrast: one (Leeds) is a compulsory module to all second-year students and the other (Bristol) is an optional module for third-year students. In Leeds, the module developed out of a need to prepare students for their compulsory third-year dissertation. Peter Vincent-Jones and Sarah Blandy describe how the module has evolved over a ten-year period, away from what might be recognized as a traditional social science 'methods' module (taught by staff from outside the law school) to one designed to equip 'students with critical skills necessary to evaluate the arguments of academic writers, drawing on qualitative/quantitative research, in specific journal articles selected as case studies in the use of socio-legal research methods' (p. 48). This 'critical consumer' approach enables students to critically use existing empirical studies in their final-year dissertations. Vincent-Jones and Blandy note that:
Although the majority of law students at Leeds continue to base their final-year dissertations on what might be described as 'doctrinal' subject matter, a significant minority choose topics which require at least some discussion of 'law in society', and a number of dissertations are genuinely socio-legal. (pp. 50-1)
The dissertation, it could be argued, provides a real opportunity for students to take a socio-legal approach and even to undertake some empirical research. Nonetheless, the seminar discussion provoked quite a debate on the 'problem' of empirically based dissertations, no doubt reflected even in the discouragement at Leeds of students undertaking their own empirical studies. Reflecting on her experience at Westminster University, at the seminar Sylvie Bacquet concluded that there were a number of problems in students undertaking empirically based dissertations. First is the absence of suitably trained supervisors and the clear reluctance of some academics to engage in empirical research. Second, there are often ethical constraints. Finally, undergraduate researchers often have problems of credibility in accessing data subjects. As well as these barriers that presented themselves to students, there could also be problems for students who were unable to assess whether empirical research was suitable to their project or who made unrealistic assumptions about the scope of empirical projects they could undertake (e.g. planning to interview victims of honour crimes).
A number of these problems were also reflected in a comment made in response to the questionnaire from an academic at a different institution:
Empirical research is not encouraged but allowed for purposes of completing a final year dissertation where such enquiry is considered essential to achieve its objective, and where safeguards are adhered to. These safeguards take the form of an individual training session with empirically trained law staff to discuss whether empirical research would be appropriate and feasible in the time frame, what research design might be suitable, any ethical aspects and research methods that would be appropriate (from a limited range allowed). Approval in Principle is required before students may approach potential participants or gatekeeping organisations. Completion and approval of a School Research Ethics application is also necessary along with a further session with empirically trained law staff prior to interview schedules or survey questionnaires being used. Few undergraduates have availed themselves of this opportunity since this system was introduced because few resources are allocated to it, and all but the very keen are [un]likely to opt for our fairly complicated procedure, but the Research Ethics Committee currently feels we should not remove this possibility for determined students so we are retaining the present system.
At the seminar, a number of practical responses to these problems were offered. First, it was suggested that staff might like to be more proactive in indicating areas where they would be prepared to supervise empirical dissertations. Second, it was pointed out that the British Library contains a number of resources that could be used for analysis, such as the 'legal lives' oral history project. Finally, we were reminded that at an undergraduate level it is often the 'doing' rather than the final product that is the most important learning outcome from a dissertation. Small projects based on qualitative interview data may not be generalizable but may provide the student with an invaluable experience and sufficient data for an undergraduate dissertation.
While the focus in the Leeds module is on substantive areas of law, which the students will already have encountered as preparation for their dissertation, the Bristol module has a different approach and purpose. The Bristol module is intended as an option for final-year students who are looking to engage with law 'from the outside' through a social science lens. Morag McDermont, Bronwen Morgan and David Cowan describe how they seek to combine a range of theoretical approaches with different (empirical) methodological approaches, such as feminist research methods and legal consciousness. The chapter reports the enthusiasm of students for the module, but also the disappointment that this has not led to a greater number of students feeding into the MSc programme in Socio-legal Studies.
Both the Leeds and Bristol modules provide a basis for reflecting on how a greater engagement with empirical legal research can be brought into the curriculum through dedicated modules.