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The Importance of Diversifying Scholarship and Cross-National Cooperation in Sociolegal Studies

By Susan Sterett
Co-Editor, Law and Society Review

When I stream music online, some algorithm figures out my preferences from the musician I pick, and I hear lots of related music. Music aficionados explain that music streaming services might surprise a listener, in a slick way, or they might not. Now that so many people use streaming services, the average music listener (say, me) is less likely to discover music via someone more musically aware, or by buying student discount tickets to a show. Aiming for advertisers shapes how music streaming services target individuals. If I am not a music aficionado and listen to a range of music more limited than what I could like, the music streaming services might throw something at me I never would have run into otherwise. For many musicians who aren’t superstars and who need the average, not especially knowledgeable listener, a collection of music conceived as an album works less well than it did before streaming and iTunes. Music streaming services mean that people purchase music bit by bit.

Similarly, academics download individual articles from journals, which editors still bundle as groups of articles, or issues. The academic equivalent of being surprised by streaming is available via online accessibility of journals, RSS feeds and Google’s recommendations. Google Scholar can recommend like a streaming service; it requires intention to use it to broaden knowledge beyond the most obvious sources.

Using recommendations well and deliberately looking through journals online could enhance cross-national cooperation in sociolegal studies. Enhancing cooperation was the task the programme committee for the Research Committee on the Sociology of Law (RCSL) meetings in Lisbon in early September set in convening a panel of journal editors. I was fortunate to be able to participate. The panel included Laurence Dumoulin of Droit et société , Jiří Přibáň representing the Journal of Law and Society, Letizia Mancini for Sociolgia del Diritto and Michelle Cottier of Zeitschrift für Rechtssoziologie. Susana Santos moderated.

Pierre Guibentif set the issues for the panel, asking about the potential for greater cooperation given the pressure for broad reach, the unbundling of articles from journal issues, and funding agencies’ priority on the public benefit of projects. Network advantages accrue to journals: the people, frameworks and journals that are known get more known, in the most widely shared language. However, online access to journals could broaden networks. Downloading individual articles could broaden the opportunity to compare cross-nationally, just as enjoying individual songs could lead the average listener to widen the songs she listens to. Learning from less dominant formats requires not simply following what the algorithm recommends, or setting up a profile that does not rely only on the most-referenced journals.

Why not draw more frequently from work published in different journals given how easy it is for those who have online access? Sociolegal issues are transboundary. States manage refugee flows through administrative justice processes. Police violence, and violence against women, remain problems in France and the United States, among other countries. Without drawing from multiple journals, the dominance of English-language work can contribute to wrongly generalizing about the world, or ignoring similarities and differences.

The online world and the spread of blogs can amplify journals. It could foster specialization, rather than promoting homogenization. For larger journals, the pressure of large numbers of submissions and the importance of including all scholars via peer review makes it harder to publish exchanges, discussions, reflections and commentaries. Some journals can do just that: Droit et société publishes ‘traduit pour vous’ to invite discussion of a translated piece of scholarship.

Journals and the scholars who write for them can accommodate the changing accessibility of information. Countering the press of metrics, and the network advantages that accrue to the largest journals, requires intention and some good fortune. Without deliberately diversifying reading and citations, scholarship narrows just when problems have not.

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