For the last few days, I’ve been at the Law and Society Association Annual Meeting in New Orleans. It was the Canadian Law and Society conference back in July 2007 that acted as a driver for posting my first post and starting this blog. In the years since 2007, I have found that it is often at these international gatherings that I find the increasingly precious space and time to think and reflect on ideas and scholarship, to test out and develop my own ideas and to connect with colleagues internationally and sustain the friendships that are so important in academia.
The Law and Society Annual Meetings – unbelievably huge by comparison to UK law conferences – is the largest annual global gathering of socio-legal scholars and enables a (however imperfect) pulse to be taken on the state of socio-legal scholarship. As in previous years, there were a significant number of North American PhD students present, but some internationally. There was the usual UK contingent of academics (and students) and as usual, this contingent was dominated by members of the Russell Group but with a number of committed socio-legal scholars outside this group. This pattern probably predicts how you are likely to see REF performance in 2021 and where funding will ultimately be further focussed for socio-legal work; namely, focused on the Russell Group, but with pockets of excellence beyond that were resources are focused to enable people to attend these important events. In a nutshell, it captures the debate about whether research excellence should be supported wherever it is found or whether research funding will be focused on a narrow elite.
This is important as the ideas from outside the Russell Group (and yes, I have self interest in this) deserve to be heard jut as much as those shared within it. Moreover, these international events offer an opportunity to engage with a larger research community that provides a crucial sounding board for ideas, and can act as critical friends in developing ideas. Put simply, these events help to generate further excellence.
So, what might look to some like a bunch of Brits turning up to a conference speaks to the health of the research environment for law and society scholarship in the UK. It is strong, and we can see many of those who will become the leading socio-legal scholars of tomorrow already here, ready to take the place of experienced voices when they retire in coming years. Yet, the current strength is fragile, easily swept away by the budget re-prioritisations of a director of research, a Faculty, or University leadership team as they try to balance competing financial demands in the current uncertain and fast-changing UK HE marketplace. Resist those cuts.