Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Forest For the Trees


Sometimes, it is so easy to get caught up in the research design and methodology, that you forget why you were originally interested in your project. I turned in a small pitch prospectus to my sociology department Organizations class a while back, and somehow, forgot to explain why my project may be important to begin with. She actually wrote in the margin: "why study employment discrimination law? why examine family and medical leave? this might be easy to answer, but you must answer it."

Ouch.

Did I get so bogged down in the research design and "operationalizing the variables" that I forgot why I'm doing this project in the first place? Why I chose the field of employment discrimination law? Why the particular lens of the sociology of law? Why have organizations be the unit of analysis? What is this a case of?

I've always been committed to anti-discrimination law and scholarship, particularly within the employment context, as that affects people's wages, livelihoods, opportunities, and identities. My interest in gender issues in the workplace, particularly wage inequality and the gendered construction of family care and leave, can be traced back to my feminist activism in college. The sociology of law is my preferred approach, because it incorporates organizational theory without under-socializing the way a Becker/Posner-esque economic analysis of law might. Organizations are my unit of analysis because they're the most capable of being affected by amending the legal mandates to effect the most change in wage inequality. My project is not purely normative, but the last part of it will try to offer some "best practices" proscriptions for organizational reforms and amendments for agency guidelines and federal statutes. It's a theory-generating empirical project, so we'll see what this is a case of.

Sometimes, with all the work that I do, I have to remind myself of why I'm doing it. I have to remember my normative and philosophical commitments. My motivations. My reasons for choosing this work rather than say, literary theory and criticism. That this isn't just what I do, but part of who I am. It is not all of who I am. But it's a significant part, because every choice we make, every job we decide to take, is a normative choice.

Science (and to a certain extent, though no one believes us, social science) purports to be "objective," "empirical," "descriptive"--code words for "non-normative." It's not the same as legal (or political) cause advocacy, I grant, which is inherently normative (sometimes stridently so). Nor is it entirely subjective, as some say literary studies are (I would counter that literary studies are interrgations of text within context, but no one believes me on that either). But even science and social science have normative implications and ethical concerns. The consideration of ethics isn't divorced from science: once you go beyond the secondary or undergraduate study of science, there is an implicit "cause" in every scientific project and inquiry. When we attempt to describe our world, we discover it, and any confrontation of ideas and paradigms (old vs. new) resulting in a choice, with implications for policy, regulation, etc. is de facto normative. Think of stem cell research, environmental science, evolutionary biology. Think also of most political science, sociology, and psychology. "Empirical" does not mean that you only describe the shape of the box and its four corners and sides. It is not only "this is how the law/society/world is." You are making the box relevant to others, and telling them why they should care about this box. It is "this is why the law/society/world" matters. And occasionally, you are trying to think outside of the box, or make changes to it, for a better, or more just law/society/world.

But a lot of how we "get there" can get bogged down in details: research design, testable hypotheses, operationalized variables, experiments, etc. It's like how a lot of legal work is really all the same: you follow the same rules of procedure, you file motions, you file counter motions, etc. etc. The rote, quotidean, mechanistic aspect of work can obscure its original purpose and underlying assumptions and motivations. But in the beginning, there was a purpose to your study: something you wanted to test and demonstrate, to prove something, either to contribute to the store of knowledge or to change the way we think about things. In the beginning, there was a purpose to your motion: on behalf of this client, cause, or maybe ideal.

I made the decision to go to law school and become a legal scholar. Sometimes I forget that it was a choice, and that I had my reasons. Work tends to become something we have to do, and something we do without thinking, really. Why do we work, and why do we work so hard? Why did we decide at whatever age (18, 22, etc.) to go into our line of work? We must have had our reasons. If indeed, you had the luxury of choice, and the talent and work ethic to serve your choice, it helps to remember it. That the quotidean aspect of work is part of the larger meta-narrative of the work, but there is a larger narrative. To remember the forest for the trees.

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