I just got back from the ISA annual conference in New Orleans, this behemoth of a conference with 4000 participants and nearly 1000 panels in 4 days. It was interesting enough, even if i’m a a little skeptical on the usefulness of such a huge conference.
I’ve also been confirmed in some doubts I’ve been having recently in my work on transitional justice on the benefits of pluridisciplinarity. Of course, we have to recognise that there are multiple facets to any given issue. You can’t just look at law, or sociology or anthropology. But there seems to be this search for a meta-science that tries to combine all academic approaches of a given question, just like scientists are looking for a unified theory of forces. I think this just leads to confusion, where lawyers are doing bad sociology, sociologists are trying to act as legislators, etc. and the result is just more confusion.
Transitional Justice is a perfect example. It is one thing to adhere to a paradigm that says that you have to look at local conditions and frameworks to deal with post-conflict situations, and that justice is a multi-faceted concept that needs the input of several social sciences, not just lawyers, who had dominated the international justice approach up until recently. But as a discipline, Transitional Justice is still looking for its soul. Political scientists sometimes forget the normative dimensions. I heard one speaker defend amnesties on flimsy facts and adopting a utilitarian approach. Following his logic, that completely ignores the moral choice a society makes in controlling certain conducts, you could argue that killing one person in a national context could be useful and therefore make exceptions to the “thou shall not kill” rule…). Activists expect criminal courts to deal with issues with are fundamentally at odds with criminal trials (reconciliation for example). Universalist human rights people struggle with the adaptation to local settings and the difficulties of upholding strict human rights standards in transitional societies. What was initially a useful dialogue often seems to me to be counter-productive cacophony.
Another example is genocide, where activists are locked into a semantic/legal prison where they lose sight of the overarching goal of raising awareness for mass atrocities in general and where other social sciences can’t seem to escape the legal definition of genocide (which is criminal and focuses on individual criminal responsibility) to elaborate their own definition that would better take into account the collective and socio-political aspects of the crime.
Any thoughts on that?
PS: I’m going to try and follow Michelle’s advice and keep my posts somewhat shorter for a while. Let’s see how that goes…