Wendy L. Martinek, Binghamton University. Email: martinek [at]


It is surely a Sisyphean task to identify and elucidate the various strands of scholarship that fall under the rubric of law and politics. The research that can be reasonably gathered under this organizational heading continues to proliferate, producing an ever more diverse literature such that there will undoubtedly be many “new” areas that could merit their own chapters in any future edition of THE OXFORD HANDBOOK OF LAW AND POLITICS. The kind of synthesis – or, more accurately, syntheses – represented by the chapters in THE OXFORD HANDBOOK reflect the careful thinking and writing of a collection of the finest scholars working in the law and politics m├ętier. Of special interest to me is what the entries in this book – individually and collectively – tell us about the interdisciplinary nature of law and politics scholarship.

There is certainly an allure to the term “interdisciplinary.” It sounds intellectually weighty and broad-minded. (And, who wouldn’t want to be considered broad-minded?) What exactly constitutes interdisciplinary scholarship, however, is rarely made clear in discussions about the relative merits of such work compared to work that is grounded in a particular discipline (such as political science).[ftn1] As a general description, interdisciplinary research might be characterized as scholarship that draws from two or more disciplines to examine a phenomenon of interest. To be truly interdisciplinary, presumably the work must integrate the theories and/or tools of each of the relevant disciplines. In the absence of a true synthesis, the work might be described as multidisciplinary but surely not as interdisciplinary. But “if there is too much overlap in examined questions and methodology, then the multiple disciplinary perspectives become redundant and no new insights can be gained from the exchange” (Dau-Schmidt 2004: 200). In other words, valuable interdisciplinary work will integrate complementary but distinct aspects of two or more disciplines.

A hidden-in-plain sight complication is determining what constitutes a separate discipline. Exactly how distinct must the two or more disciplines (from which the purported interdisciplinary scholarship is drawing) be for the research in question to be considered interdisciplinary and not intradisciplinary?[ftn2] On its face, a collaboration between an artist and a biologist on the form and function of bird wings may be considered interdisciplinary.[ftn3] But, for example, are social psychology and psychological sociology separate fields or simply subfields of social psychology (Sewell 1989)? No doubt those who labor in the field of social psychology have strong opinions on this and, not being either a social psychologist or a psychological sociologist, I would defer to them on this point. But such thoughts do lead me to wonder if, indeed, law is a discipline separate from other disciplines [*1112] that include the study of law, legal processes, legal actors, etc.

Even a casual reader of the chapters on law and economics (Kornhauser), law and psychology (Tyler), and law and history (Tomlins) – all of which appear in Part IX “Interdisciplinary Approaches to Law and Politics” – will come away with some sense of what might reasonably be seen as an economic or psychological or historical approach to the study of some aspect or aspects of law. But we can consider these interdisciplinary approaches only by assuming that law is a separate discipline.[ftn4] Setting aside the study of and training in the actual practice of law, however, I respectfully submit that law is not a separate discipline unto itself. There is no unique theoretical focus or particular methodological tool that demarcates law from other disciplines.[ftn5] And scholarship that examines law through the lens of only one discipline – no matter how finely crafted and insightful – cannot be properly understood as interdisciplinary.[ftn6]

When I began work on this short contribution to the symposium devoted to THE OXFORD HANDBOOK OF LAW AND POLITICS, I initially thought I would be writing a piece that extolled the virtues and contributions of interdisciplinary legal scholarship, rife with examples drawn from the extant literature. While I am quite convinced that interdisciplinary work (if executed well) is virtuous and that it can make important contributions, I have come to the conclusion that only a small proportion of the work devoted to the law and legal phenomenon that is commonly labeled as interdisciplinary truly is so.[ftn7] The more I read purported examples of interdisciplinary work, the more I found that the work was really examining the law from one or another disciplinary basis. And it was difficult to discern what was uniquely from the “discipline of law.” There is, of course, interdisciplinary legal work ;[ftn8] just not as much of it as I originally thought there was.

This is a pity since, as Scheingold asserts, “In the academic world, disciplines are very decidedly the ties that bind – and often that blind” (2008: 2). And that is exactly why the paucity of real interdisciplinary legal scholarship is unfortunate. As Dau-Schmidt observes:
In making abstractions from reality that allow insight into a problem, all social scientists need to be mindful of the limitations of their analysis and to adapt that analysis when the essential features of the problem exceed the capacity of their model. Talking to scholars in other disciplines, or reading their work, is one of the best ways to learn about the limitations of your own analysis and to find ways to address the problem (2004: 205).

Interdisciplinary work, if done well, has the very practical and salutary effects of improving the quality of our theorizing and enhancing the models we construct, thereby advancing the state of our knowledge. Encouraging it, then, is a good thing.

Beneficent effects notwithstanding, interdisciplinary work is notoriously difficult to sustain as an intellectual program over the long term (see, e.g., Harty and Modell 1991; Sewell 1989).[ftn9] Others have catalogued a [*1113] plethora of reasons for this (e.g., Scheingold 2008; Sewell 1989). These reasons include professional rivalries, with members of various subfields jealously guarding their turf. Institutional organization also matters, as most universities are structured primarily as collections of separate disciplines.[ftn10] And, of course, there is the simple matter of developing the necessary human capital.[ftn11] It is not enough to merely bring together a group of people from different disciplines who share common interests. There must be a willingness on the part of scholars not only to bring their vocabulary, theories, and methods to the table but also to consume the vocabulary, theories, and methods brought to the table by scholars from other disciplines. As Kramer asserts, interdisciplinary research “is perfectly possible, but one cannot get it just by mixing the different people [from different disciplines] together. One must mix the disciplines together in one human brain, so to speak” (1959: 565). And this is not an easy thing to do since the academic reward structure is not a clean fit with the structure of interdisciplinary research. For example, with notable exceptions such as LAW & SOCIETY REVIEW, most journals are discipline specific. But the difficulty of fostering a sustained interdisciplinary research agenda is not a reason to avoid making the effort. Doing so successfully necessitates, I suspect, being quite a bit clearer about what we mean by interdisciplinary legal research.

There is one additional point that THE OXFORD HANDBOOK OF LAW AND POLITICS brought to mind and that I think is worth mentioning here. Political scientists studying law and legal processes are often wont to don a hair shirt and cilice regarding our failure to make our scholarship relevant to those outside of our “narrow” little field. But even a casual perusal of the chapters in this book should make two things clear. First, the field of law and politics is anything but narrow. There may be, as Martin Shapiro argues in his contribution to this volume, a disproportionate emphasis on law and courts in the law and politics field. But the breadth of actors, institutions, products, and processes examined by law and politics scholars is astounding. Second, much of the law and politics research is self-evidently relevant to those who identify themselves as legislative specialists, interest group analysts, social movement scholars, etc. If it is true, as it undoubtedly is, that law and politics scholars could do more to make this relevance clear, their duty to do this is no greater than the duty of scholars in other subfields of political science to make the relevance of their scholarship clear to others (including to law and politics scholars). And it is far from self-evident that law and politics scholars currently do any better or worse at this than non-law and politics scholars. And, so, wearing a hair shirt or a cilice rather than a hair shirt and calice might well suffice.

In one of the last chapters in this volume, Stuart Scheingold recalls his days as a graduate student at Berkeley as a means of communicating a sense of what “public law” entailed at that time. Scheingold reports thinking about “public law” then as “that forbiddingly opaque and never elucidated designation” (739). No doubt many graduate students in many fields still struggle with understanding the nature and substance of the intellectual [*1114] endeavor that characterizes their respective disciplines. Students of law and courts now have an advantage in this regard. Though it may not be able to elucidate the designation of “law and politics” to everyone’s satisfaction, THE OXFORD HANDBOOK OF LAW AND POLITICS does much to make the study of law and politics a great deal less opaque.

  1. A notable exception is Lynn Mather’s contribution to this volume regarding the law and society field.

  2. This is a lot like asking how substantial the effect of purely intrastate commerce must be on interstate commerce for its regulation to fall under federal Commerce Clause authority.

  3. Or perhaps not if they collaborate on the collection of bird photographs but the artist goes on to use them for an art installation and the biologist goes on to use them to create a forensic record. There is scant synthesis there.

  4. Mather’s chapter is a bit different in this regard. As Mather notes, “the law and society field lacks clear boundaries to separate its interdisciplinary perspective from the other disciplines” (692) but the work that she cites as examples of law and society scholarship all draw on two or more distinct disciplines, making law and society research perhaps some of the most truly interdisciplinary work of all the scholarship that claims that title.

  5. Tomlins (2000) offers a diametrically opposed view that is worth reading for both the substance of his argument and the intellectual history it provides. See, also, Martin Shapiro’s contribution to The Oxford Handbook.

  6. This is akin to referring to work that examines the political institutions or behavior in one country, as long as it is not the United States, as comparative politics scholarship.

  7. Interestingly, some of the work that is really interdisciplinary, such as economic analyses of the political decision making of judges that takes into account the cognitive limitations of decision makers, is only rarely referred to as interdisciplinary.

  8. An excellent example is the line of research that draws from both economic theory and psychology (behavioral economics) to understand the decision making of juries.

  9. This does not mean that it is impossible, as the longevity and robustness of the law and society field attests (Scheingold 2008).

  10. Interdisciplinary programs abound but they remain a minority in a sea of discipline-based departments.

  11. Another difficulty sometimes identified is the lack of financial support for interdisciplinary work. That difficulty is substantially ameliorated by the Law and Social Science Program of the National Science Foundation since this program’s mission explicitly includes fostering interdisciplinary – or, at least, multidisciplinary – research on the law. [*1115]

Dau-Schmidt, Kenneth G. 2004. “Pittsburgh, City of Bridges: Developing a Rational Approach to Interdisciplinary Discourse on Law.” LAW & SOCIETY REVIEW 38: 199-206.

Harty, Martha and John Modell. 1991. “The First Conflict Resolution Movement, 1956-1971: An Attempt to Institutionalize Applied Interdisciplinary Social Science.” JOURNAL OF CONFLICT RESOLUTION 35: 720-758.

Kramer, Robert. 1959. “Some Observations on Law and Interdisciplinary Research.” DUKE LAW JOURNAL 1959: 563-570.

Monroe, Kristen Renwick. 2002. “Interdisciplinary Work and a Search for Shared Scientific Standards.” P.S.: POLITICAL SCIENCE AND POLITICS 35: 203-205.

Scheingold, Stuart A. 2008. “Home Away from Home: Collaborative Research Networks and Interdisciplinary Socio-Legal Scholarship.” ANNUAL REVIEW OF LAW AND SOCIAL SCIENCE 4: 1-12.

Sewell, William H. 1989. “Some Reflections on the Golden Age of Interdisciplinary Social Psychology.” ANNUAL REVIEW OF SOCIOLOGY 15: 1-16.

Tomlins, Christopher. 2000. “Framing the Field’s Disciplinary Encounters: A Historical Narrative.” LAW & SOCIETY REVIEW 34: 911-972.

© Copyright 2008 by the author, Wendy L. Martinek.