Academic journal article Law & Society Review

Engaged Research, "Goose Bumps," and the Role of the Public Intellectual

Academic journal article Law & Society Review

Engaged Research, "Goose Bumps," and the Role of the Public Intellectual

Article excerpt

As I was preparing my remarks for today, I thought about other LSA Presidential Addresses that had resonated with me, from Felice Levine's (1990) description of Lily Tomlin's "Trudy," and the "goose bumps" that she (Felice) got from sociolegal studies, to Frank Munger's (2001) appeal to law and society scholars to do engaged research.

I realized that two themes I care passionately about were implicit in several of those previous talks, and that's why I had found them so compelling. They are the importance of asking the big questions (those that give us goose bumps), and the urgent need for a commitment to engaged research. I will argue today that there are in fact close links between these two themes. And, I will suggest that making these links explicit may help us address some of the dilemmas attached to the role of the engaged intellectual.

Let me start with a confession: I am sometimes envious, really envious, of physicists. Last fall, I read in my local newspaper (Cole 2000a:A-1) that an international team of scientists at an underground laboratory in Geneva think they have caught a glimpse of an invisible particle-or at least its tracks-that they call the Higgs boson. The reporter (Cole 2000a:A-19) explained that "The Higgs boson, often described as a kind of cosmic molasses, changes the properties of particles that travel through it. It imparts a kind of sluggishness-or mass." A follow-up story (Cole 2000b:B-2) said that once they figure out exactly how the Higgs works, they think they will be able to answer such questions as "Why is our universe made of matter but not antimatter, even though the two appear to be created in precisely equal amounts?" Or, "If there are really ten dimensions to space-as popular theories suggest-why are only three large enough for us to perceive?" One Nobel Laureate (quoted in Cole 2000a:A-- 19) said the Higgs is so important, it may be "the 'God' particle." The reporter (Cole 2000b:B-2) elaborated, "The Higgs field... took the formless perfection (that was the early universe) and froze structure into it.... In fact, something very much like the Higgs may have been behind the collapse of symmetry that led to the Big Bang, which created the universe."

Now, I don't pretend to understand all of this, but I am awestruck by the kinds of knowledge these physicists are after: What makes matter? What produces structure in a universe essentially made up of particles in motion? And, of course the really big one, Where did the universe come from?

My initial envy of those who are tracking the force that literally "structures" the universe gave way to thinking about what the big questions are in Law and Society, and how hard it is in our field to make big discoveries. For one thing, there are probably no universal laws because there are probably no universals in a social world that is fragmented and forever shifting. But, as Bill Chambliss (1984:1), summarizing Sir Francis Bacon, wrote in Criminal Law in Action, "It is the questions we ask that determine our knowledge far more than the answers we divine." Some of our most enduring work asks such questions as "Why do the haves come out ahead?"; "What is the alchemy of race and rights?"; "What is the role of law in social transformation?"; "How much does law matter?"; "What is the gendered power of law?"; and "How does law shape everyday life?"'

The papers and roundtables at this Budapest meeting, exploring the junctures and disjunctures between democratization and globalization, or globalization and the reemergence of nationalisms, or the simultaneously fluid and stable nature of social and legal structure, are testament to the ambitious scope of our field. Underlying many of these questions is the most basic one of all, one that is analogous to the question physicists hope to answer with their Higgs boson. It is, where does structure come from? And, related to this, How do we bridge the apparent divide between agency and structure; daily practice and the institutional; resistance and power? …

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