Methodologies

Once we view law as a product of a particular social context, we are free to analyse it according to a range of disciplinary methodologies. No longer restricted to legal method, we can turn our interpretive gaze outwards to disciplines with the potential to illuminate our study of law in different ways. Socio-legal study in the UK looks to the arts and humanities as well as the social sciences. Historical method is an obvious starting-point, partly because so much of property law derives from the past - most equitable remedies, for example, can be traced to particular social problems the law needed to solve - but also because law as a discipline derives much of its authority from past precedent. Legislation and cases can be interrogated through the various lenses of literary criticism; there is a flourishing 'law and literature' scholarship in which property law has proved a fruitful object of study (for example, Watt, 2009). Biographies of judges cast light on the role played by personality and background in judicial decision-making (Heward, 1990); geographical research and photographic analysis contribute that sense of place so central to land law (Massey, 1994; Layard, 2010); architectural and art historians have provided hitherto unconsidered insights into the legal process (Moran, 2009; Mulcahy, 2010).

From the social sciences, contemporary issues such as the rise of unmarried cohabitation (relevant to the study of trusts of the family home) will draw on, but also invite, sociological and demographic research (Firth, 2009). An important methodology is the fact- and opinion-finding survey which, carefully analysed and interpreted, can yield useful data for policy-makers and critics of the law (Lewis, 1999). Granted that there is limited space within our core Land Law or Equity modules to permit extensive engagement with empirical research of this kind (and if we do introduce it we need to guard against misuse of data or unethical attempts by students to conduct their own research), nevertheless empirical work is basic to an understanding of society and law, and to dispelling the myths, misconceptions and uninformed opinions that too often pass for authority in legal work.

I am conscious that drawing on disciplines from the arts, humanities and social sciences to inform our teaching and research in law may make us guilty of dabbling, and encouraging students to dabble, in scholarship we do not properly understand. Given that historians, literary critics and art historians study for years to become experts in their fields, one may wonder what gives lawyers - notoriously narrowly educated in a discipline indifferent to any authority but its own - the authority to poach untrained into the territory of others. To this I would say that, although there is indeed a risk that we will get it wrong, just as non-lawyers may get legal method wrong, many of us are in fact educated in other disciplines, our students may have more extralegal knowledge than we give them credit for (since we rarely have occasion to draw on it in the law degree), and we are all capable of learning new skills. And surely any exposure to alternatives to black-letter law is better than none.

The ongoing benefit for students of learning about socio-legal approaches and techniques in the first or second year of their LLB, where much property law teaching is located, is that they may feel inspired by their experience to choose to write a dissertation in the area in their final year, and will have the skills to do this competently. I have often come across students keen to research a socio-legal aspect of property law but with no idea of how to go about it or what has already been written on the subject. At least, if they meet socio-legal scholarship in a core module, they will have a better sense of the huge range of scholarship out there and the possibilities for original engagement. And this may lead to postgraduate work in the field, and the broadening out of the socio-legal research community about which disquiet was voiced by the Nuffield Inquiry on Empirical Legal Research in 2006 (Genn et al., 2006).

 
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