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Through the Looking Glass: Law and Interdisciplinarity

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About The Author

Ben McGuckin (Former EU and International Law Editor)

Ben is set to begin his LPC in September, having previously graduated with an LLM in International Law and Governance from Durham University and a First Class LLB from Northumbria University. nd securing an award for best performing student in final year in the process. He hopes to work in the areas of mental health and family law, with a view to eventually joining the Army Legal Services. Outside of law, Ben enjoys playing darts with his local pub team. He also has a keen interest in video games and rock music.

Creativity depends on interactions between feeling and thinking, and across different disciplinary boundaries and fields of ideas.

Professor Ken Robinson

Every day – regardless of where or with whom a person works or interacts – they engage with multiple disciplines, often without noticing. This is particularly the case for lawyers: though they will spend the majority of their time focused on the black-letter of the law and its provisions, it is likely that there will be frequent occasions on which they will also come into contact with elements of philosophy and ethics. A recent example of this was the highly-publicised case of the terminally ill baby Charlie Gard, which raised a variety of legal, ethical, moral and philosophical questions.

In light of this, this article stresses the need for lawyers to look beyond the law and its provisions if they are to effectively address the problems in contemporary society. Indeed, while it is noted that paying close attention to the law is undeniably important – it is inherent in the job of the lawyer that the law cannot be cast aside in favour of other approaches – it is also emphasised that lawyers who are aware of, and can interact with, other disciplines that impact on issues with which they are faced are more likely to succeed in resolving the multi-lateral challenges put before them. Ultimately, only through being able to draw from, and engage with, these disciplines can they gain a vital holistic picture of a particular issue.

What is Interdisciplinarity?

Delineating what is meant by interdisciplinarity is not as easy as it may first appear. At its simplest, interdisciplinarity is the combining of multiple (typically academic) disciplines in order to tackle a particular problem. By thinking across subject boundaries, new ideas and perspectives are created that can facilitate the tackling of a new and complex problem.

The interdisciplinarity approach is increasingly taking route in the scientific context: data shows that more than one-third of the references in scientific papers now point to other disciplines. This is a welcome recognition that the resolution of the vast majority of the problems facing modern society requires an interdisciplinary approach, whether they be concrete problems surrounding health and the environment or more intellectual puzzles such as debates over culture and identity. 

Nonetheless, as the scientific community has found, there are practical hurdles that are blocking the take-up of interdisciplinary research, whether they be in relation to submitting papers to high-profile journals or applying for funding. Furthermore, as interdisciplinarity involves academics from different fields working together, clashing attitudes towards research or mutual scepticism towards each other’s disciplines can undermine the success of interdisciplinary research.

Similar problems persist for lawyers seeking to engage in interdisciplinarity. As Douglas Vick explains, a tension exists between those who employ a traditional legal analysis to problems and those who engage in an interdisciplinary approach. Underpinning this clash are concerns about how interdisciplinarity creates difficult challenges to widely-accepted notions about the purposes of legal scholarship and the relationship between academic lawyers and the legal profession.

Yet despite this tension, there are increasing calls from some legal academics for the benefits of interdisciplinarity to be emphasised. This is particularly so in relation to areas of the law which are novel and under-developed, and are contingent on the research of other academics fields. Environmental law is a good example: as Gavin Little describes, in this area of law that is often perceived as ‘immature’ and tough, due to the methodological challenges’ it poses, it is important for lawyers to recognise the advantages that can be gained from using:

[I]nsights from the environmental humanities and sciences [to] invigorate and mature environmental law scholarship by creating exciting new interdisciplinary contexts for the development of legal research methods.

The Benefits of Interdisciplinarity

One of the most cited benefits of taking an interdisciplinary approach to a problem is that it allows for a particular element of that issue to be illuminated in a different way. In this way, what is discovered from the use of this new perspective might facilitate the overcoming of what once seemed to be an insurmountable hurdle.

In a legal context, an example of adopting this approach would be to view a legal problem from not just a purely doctrinal legal lens – in which the black-letter provisions of a statute or the precedents of past case law are focused on – but also to view it from the position of a religion or culture.  By taking such a perspective into account, the lawyer is able to appreciate different dimensions of a problem or legal issue and seize upon the benefit noted by Wendy Schrama, who observes that taking an interdisciplinary approach offers lawyers greater and improved opportunities to ‘measure the effectiveness of legal instruments’.

A Case Study: The HIV/AIDS Pandemic

Such interdisciplinary thinking could prove vitally important in the fight against the HIV/AIDS pandemic. A pressing global challenge which threatens millions of people worldwide, the tackling of HIV/AIDS requires a coordinated and concerted response from the international community, organizations and individuals across the world.

Several important legal frameworks – such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) – all offer important mediums through which major barriers to the effective fighting of the pandemic may be overcome. Indeed, not only does the UDHR hold that a person has the ‘right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family’, the ICESCR and the UNCRC go a step further and articulate a right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.

However, it is clear that such legal frameworks are not a panacea in this context. For while the UNCRC includes an obligation on signatories to ensure that ‘no child is deprived of…access to…healthcare services’ and the right to access healthcare facilities, statistics show that 76% of children living with HIV are not receiving the crucial antiretroviral therapy (ART) that can mitigate the effects of the disease and can allow those infected with HIV to have a chance of a normal life.

The problem with using a pure legal lens to address aspects of the HIV/AIDS crisis – whether it be access to ART or providing children with an adequate education to prevent HIV transmission – is that the imposition of rigid legal obligations upon actors limits the capacity for adaptation. A legal provision that requires a state to comply with a certain duty may cause more harm than good where compliance with that duty prevents resources from being used more effectively in another area following changing circumstances.

Therefore, if lawyers are to fully engage in solving a problem, they must think beyond the confines of the law. It follows that they must be freed from thinking of the HIV/AIDS pandemic as a legal issue to be dealt with by existing legal instruments or by promulgating more international treaties if the existing frameworks do not work. Addressing a problem through only legal means pushes other ways of dealing with the problem to one side. For example, it may be more beneficial to view the HIV/AIDS through a religious lens. By viewing the problem through a religious lens, and attempting to change opinions on contraception through religion rather than through law, then perhaps this may go some way to facilitating the reduction of the spread of the disease.

Furthermore, it seems practicable to view a problem from as many angles as possible. Legal problems, as with any other problem, are lenticular in nature, meaning that they appear different when looked at from a different angle. Imagine a legal problem as a lenticular image in a museum. By only looking at that problem from a legal perspective, it is viewed in a certain way – the lawyer is blind to the other perspectives. But by changing position and viewing the image from a different angle, it becomes an entirely different image. This is the effect of taking an interdisciplinary approach to legal studies. 

Back to School

The problems that can be created through taking a narrow approach that only focuses on the law and overlooking other disciplines are enhanced by the fact that rejecting such an approach feels unnatural to many lawyers. Indeed, with many legal courses at universities tending to focus heavily on black-letter law and never explicitly drawing upon or pointing towards other disciplines, more and more law students are missing out on the chance to engage with other disciplines in order to get a more holistic picture of their practice.

This is concerning: after all, laws are not created in a vacuum; they are political constructs and are influenced by multiple disciplines. It is therefore contradictory to cast aside these disciplines after the law has been created.

How Can Students Promote Interdisciplinary?

There are a number of ways by which law students can ensure they are fully and effectively engaging with interdisciplinarity.

For example, there are an increasing number of law courses which have been specifically designed to be interdisciplinary. At Stanford University Law School in California, a myriad of courses have been developed which seek to integrate the law with other disciplines. For example, it offers a Science, Policy and Law course which examines how the law operates alongside policy considerations and the various scientific elements od the California Coast. As a result, the students are given an invaluable insight into how the law interacts with science and policy in this complex and fascinating region of the USA.

For law students at universities which offer more traditional ‘pure law’ courses, the best way to engage in interdisciplinarity is to get involved in extra-curricular activities which promote interdisciplinarity.  A number of UK institutions have sought to provide such opportunities in the form of interdisciplinary research groups, such as Edinburgh Law School’s Global Justice Academy and Durham Law School’s Islam, Law and Modernity research group. Groups such as this are an opportunity for law students to see how the law operates alongside other disciplines.

Alongside joining a research group, another excellent way of engaging in interdisciplinarity studies is to attend conferences which have an interdisciplinary theme. Increasingly organised by law schools aware that merely looking at the law is not enough to effectively addressing the pressing issues society faces, these conferences give attendees the added benefit of meeting academics and practitioners from various fields and disciplines. Information about upcoming conferences and other resources for those interested in the interdisciplinary study of law can be found on the Socio-Legal Studies Association’s website.


For many lawyers, involving other disciplines in their work can cause anxiety; it might contradict the methods which they were taught to use and also engages the tensions identified by Douglas Vick. However, it is submitted that this anxiety is a necessary one; only by engaging with other disciplines can lawyers see the full picture of a problem and move towards a position where they can effectively address the issues faced by modern society. Ultimately, it is submitted that the words which underpin the work of Stanford Law School ought to resonate be throughout every law school: ‘to make a difference through law, you must know more than law.'

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Tagged: Environmental Law, International Law, Legal Education

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