A Brief Guide to Reading, Writing, and Giving Feedback in Socio-Legal Studies

*Mark Fathi Massoud

Scholarly Reading

Part of researching and writing well in the field of socio-legal studies is reading well. Reading well involves annotating everything that you read. Each article, book or book section that you read must be “imPECCable” –
P is for Purpose: Ask yourself, what is the author’s purpose in writing this piece? Who is the audience? This objective is usually stated almost immediately in a piece of writing, usually in a preface or abstract or introduction.

E is for Evidence: What evidence does the author marshal in support of his/her purpose?

C is for Conclusion: What does the author conclude in light of the evidence gathered?

C is for Critique: Ask yourself — given the author’s stated purpose, did the author achieve what the author set out to achieve? Assess the strengths and weaknesses of the author’s work. In what ways did the reading appeal to you? In what ways were you disappointed?

Finally, for every piece you read (and write), be sure to complete this statement:

If I care about the topic of socio-legal studies, I should care about this research and its findings on … because …

 

Scholarly Research

Consider the following questions as you prepare for your own research and writing.

What is your research topic? What kinds of things about the social and political world provoke you? What contribution do you hope to make to your profession? What contribution do you hope your paper, dissertation, or book will make to your personal, educational, and career goals? And how might you frame these goals as a 30-second pitch to a non-specialist?

 Frame, hook, and literature review. What is the “frame” or hook for your research? How have others discussed similar projects? In which community of practice do you seek to situate yourself? List the journals (and authors) that influence you and where you would like to incorporate your project or parts of it. What books inform what you would like to do, and why? How do these articles and books frame their questions, and why are their conclusions meaningful or game-changing?

 Research question. Given the broad topics and literature that interest you, what specific question or puzzle about the political and social world would you like to investigate? How would a data-driven, quantitatively-oriented social scientist approach and design this question? What kind of data would she use? How would she test her hypothesis? How would the data be generalizable? How might a qualitatively-oriented scholar frame the question? How would an interpretive or critical scholar reorient the question even further? Here, you must not only introduce a research problem. You must also make clear why it is important for those in the scholarly communities where you situate your work. Also ask yourself, what is my study a case of? List those concepts that your case study is about (democracy, gender, legitimacy, class, violence, etc.).

 Methods: Historical-archival research. What do you know (from the literature), what don’t you know, what can you gather, and what is impossible to gather? How might your current case look if you bring in a historical or comparative lens? What archives might you need to visit? Who are the archivists, what are the opening times or seasons to travel? What might you need to know or investigate in the archives? In terms of data analysis, how are you planning to code and analyze or reduce your data? Be specific. It should be so clearly planned that someone else should be able to do it for you.

Methods: Interviews and interview pretests. Given your question, what you know, and what you don’t know, what methods are best for you? Start doing the preparatory work. Find and list organizations where you might do participant observation or meet people. What will you look for? Plan to execute a small pilot study or pretest your interview questionnaire for 30 minutes with a friend, classmate, or colleague. What hypotheses are out there, and what potential biases exist in your project? What changes will you make after the preliminary study and pretest? How will you maintain your ethical responsibilities as a researcher?

 

Scholarly Feedback

Giving feedback as a scholar to another writer is a critical part of our profession. Feedback has three parts.

First, restate the paper and its findings. Tell the author in your own words what you found the paper trying to say.

Second, identify the intervention the author is trying to make. That is, tell the author the field(s) or area(s) or debate(s) where the topic or argument of the paper stands to make a contribution. The author may have already thought about some of those debates or fields, and some may be new to the author. Be gentle.

Third, offer constructive feedback to the author. Consider how the author’s question could be narrowed or expanded and whether the methods adopted are suitable to the inquiry.

It may be helpful to ask the author in advance what questions or struggles the author has had about their own work, areas the author would like you to focus your attention, and the specific kind of feedback the author seeks (e.g., assistance with big-picture feedback, editorial or stylistic feedback, or comments on specific sections or additional literature).

Remember: only give constructive and critical feedback after you have first restated in your own words to the author what is the author’s argument and where is the heart of the author’s intervention.

 

*Mark Fathi Massoud is Associate Professor of Politics and Legal Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz (USA). He organized and facilitated the Socio-Legal Studies Early Career Scholars Workshop, held in 2017 at CLS, co-sponsored by Law & Society Review and the University of Cape Town Faculty of Law.

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