What Do We ‘Do’ When We Do Public and Private International, EU and Comparative Law?

This requires a commitment to thinking about methods and methodologies – what is it we ‘do’ when we do law ‘beyond the state’? Law is an academic field notorious for its methodological unawareness, despite the fact that legal research is often said to proceed from the assumption that there is a distinctly legal method, allowing one to know what counts as law, where to find it, what it says (or might say), means (or might mean), and what to do with it, particularly to solve problems.

Confronting assumptions about legal method in the context of law ‘beyond the state’ is particularly worthwhile because we (practitioners, judges and legal academics) often implicitly accept that law is a phenomenon inextricably linked to the state. Looking at law beyond the state, be it in an international, comparative or European context, can confront what is taken for granted in legal research methodology.

This idea, that by exploring methods and methodologies in law ‘beyond the state’ we can shed light on legal methods more generally, presumes that there is something unique to research methodologies in the fields of EU, international (public and private) and comparative law. Is this true? What, if anything is unique here? Does anything unite these fields? Are there methodological problems common to these fields, and can they tell us anything about legal method per se?

In addition to new questions thrown up by the expansion of legal orders beyond the state, questions of method are particularly important in the context of international legal studies (broadly defined), where the very foundations, purpose and nature of particular legal orders, or particular sub-disciplines of academic study, are contested in a way which one rarely sees in domestic law. Furthermore, a number of critical approaches have called into question the coherence of the object of international legal studies, thus making the need to take a position on what it is that we ‘do’ as legal academics ever more important.

Sheffield University is hosting a scoping workshop in January 2013 to address these issues, as part of a wider project on research methodologies in law ‘beyond the state’.

We would welcome your comments on any of the questions posed here – on the very idea of law beyond the state; on legal method and methodologies more generally; on the workshop themes and on the following three broad research questions:

  • What, if anything is unique about studying, researching or simply understanding law within our respective fields?
  • What unites these fields, if anything?
  • What are the particular methodological difficulties common to all of us who study law beyond the state, and what do they tell us about legal method per se?