Wednesday, July 25, 2012

More on Applied Legal History

Readers intrigued by the idea of "applied legal history," which Al Brophy introduced here and I addressed here, will want to head over to the Faculty Lounge to read the additional thoughts that Al has posted.

Here's Al on how we might define "applied legal history":
I think applied legal history is a way of describing what a number of us are already doing -- that is, it's a way of talking about what has motivated a number of legal histories of late and of also explaining what we are doing to our colleagues.  . . . [It] is scholarship that is inspired by contemporary issues or seeks to address some contemporary issue. 
Al then identifies four categories of "applied legal history" and offers examples. Much legal historical scholarship fits somewhere in here, which raises the question of what, if anything, is excluded. (To be fair, Al characterizes some of the categories as further from "the core," and he does not presume that the authors he lists would place their work under the "applied legal history" umbrella.)

Further down Al responds to my concern about the perils of "applied legal history":
. . . Karen also raises the possibility that a focus on applied legal history will make (shall we call it) "pure" legal history look descriptive rather than normative.  I'd go beyond Karen on this.  I'm worried that focus on "applied legal history" may highlight that "pure" legal history doesn't relate much to the issues that our law school colleagues care about most. . . .
. . . We should continue to write on "pure" legal history -- but I think we need to be prepared to defend why we are doing it.  Talk of applied legal history may be a relatively easy way of demonstrating to colleagues the importance of our work; there are other ways of demonstrating that as well. 
Here Al and I agree more than we disagree. As Mary has written on this blog, all legal historians -- all historians -- ought to be able to articulate the "cash out value" of their work. Perhaps tagging our work as "applied legal history" is, as Al suggests, one convenient way of establishing value.

But I think that's also why the term makes me a bit uncomfortable. When discussing my work with non-historians, I know that I can reach common ground by making a connection to a contemporary issue or current legal debate. It's like the academic version of talking about the weather, with the added hint that I might be able to predict the next drought or explain last night's big storm. And for something like a hallway conversation or a first-round AALS interview, that may not be a bad way to go. But personally, when I make my scholarship "useable" in this way, I'm not necessarily expressing why I consider my work worthwhile and important -- and that, I believe, is what most of my non-historian colleagues really want to understand. That conversation is harder -- maybe it takes a few tries -- but it seems worthwhile, both for building an intellectually diverse community and developing one's own scholarship.

My snippets of Al's post do not do it justice. Read the rest here. And, of course, please use the comments function to chime in.

The image comes from a progressive-era series of pamphlets on "Applied History" published by the State Historical Society of Iowa. (image credit)