Goodbye to Berlin


As I mentioned in my last blog, I’ve not long been back from a few days in Berlin, combining the Law & Society Association/Research Committee for Sociology of Law conference with a weekend away with the divine Ms B.

The conference itself was massive, held at the Humboldt University (pictured). Running over five days there were easily over 2000 delegates and (someone told me) nearly 40 parallel streams. I managed to attend about eight: a mixture of legal ethics, legal profession and social theory streams. One of the reasons I went was that there was a lot of systems theory happening, with a number of well-established names performing – Gunther Teubner, Michael King, Jean Clam, and my former colleague and continuing friend John Paterson to name but a few, and systems theory is relevant to my slowly progressing book project on Law, Complexity and Globalization. There was relatively little legal education, or at least not in a coordinated fashion. It was mostly odd papers scattered across streams, which made it more difficult to follow it as a theme. Unfortunately one legal education session that had been coordinated by my Brit colleagues Fiona Cownie and Tony Bradney clashed with my own paper (‘Socio-Legal Studies, Transdisciplinarity and the Challenge of Complexity’) which partly rehashed and partly developed ideas I’d previous published in Michael Freeman’s Current Legal Issues volume on Law and Sociology (Oxford UP, 2006).

Still, legal education wasn’t the primary purpose of my going this time, and it was an interesting event. One of the things that I found interesting was the very clear sense I got of the growing split between European and US approaches to socio-legal scholarship. This may not have been everyone’s experience of the conference of course; I did attend a number of sessions that focussed on quite distinctively European theories or themes, at which US attendance – and certainly participation – was significantly less, and that may have skewed my view. But I was certainly struck by the degree to which in a couple of theory sessions the Europeans (including the Brits) were operating in a very different theoretical space from the US Americans. A lot of the US law and society project still seems very much caught up with a strongly positivist social science or liberal political philosophy.

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2 responses to “Goodbye to Berlin

  1. It’s not just in the theoretical area that dividing lines are appearing. In the legal profession arena we are diverging and this is in spite of globalization. For me the Americans are somewhat insular in their analysis of what is taking place, while the British are more outward looking in theirs. Perhaps it’s the future Clementi changes in the UK are driving the agenda while America is becoming protectionist about its profession.

    Interestingly, the latest issue of Private Eye carried a column on the declining popularity of American TV shows in the UK. Its explanation was that there are fewer Hollywood scriptwriters around now. They used to simplify things, especially language. The new crop of writers are more content to eschew global understanding for immediate impact on the home market. In contrast, British TV shows, such as The Office, are doing well in the US. Perhaps more linguistic barriers generally are being erected along with tariffs.

    But my final point would be that the theoretical penumbra around Luhmann is a localised one. It is almost peculiar to law and European law at that. And it too creates linguistic barriers. Maybe the choice of theory is analogous to the selection of good scriptwriters–clarity or complexity.

    I did like Berlin though…

  2. Fair points all, as ever, John. While I agree that Luhmann is much more a European phenomenon, I’m not sure that it is as localised to law as you suggest – if you look at journals like Theory, Culture & Society, Philosophy of the Social Sciences, and Acta Sociologica, while there is not a vast amount on Luhmann and systems theory, it does appear. At the same time I agree that the language of systems theory, and, for that matter, some of its epistemological assumptions are problematic.

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