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A Researcher’s Diary: Reflections on the Role of Field Trips in Legal Scholarship

In this post, Felicitas Benziger reflects on her experiences during her field trips for the LAWINSEL project and how this affected her approach to research. She visited the library of the Max-Planck-Institute for Legal History and Theory in Frankfurt am Main and the Berlin State library from the 2nd to the 23rd June 2024. Felicitas is grateful to the Irish Research Council for making these trips possible.

 

For me, as a researcher working on a project in law, which requires typical desk-based research, the idea of going on a field trip struck me as somewhat odd at first. While the prospect of travelling to libraries harbouring a wealth of literature waiting to be explored for our research was attractive, I could also feel some hesitation deep inside. A number of factors played into my initial hesitation: first, budget considerations – a hurdle probably every researcher has encountered at some point in their career. How much will such a field trip cost? Will the cost be worth the benefit of the outcome? What is a sensible duration for this field trip? And so on. Second, the question of “need” – is a field trip really necessary, or can the research also be done from the office desk? In fact, thanks to the increasing digitalisation of written sources, even research concerning historical legal documents can nowadays often be undertaken without stepping a foot outside the door. Third, the concern of an uncertain outcome - what if the field trip does not yield the results hoped for? Beyond accessing the selected sources identified via preliminary research, how to ascertain the libraries contain other relevant literature beyond what I gathered by browsing their online catalogues? How to tell whether they indeed offer an inspiring research environment?


"With a library, it is easier to hope for serendipity than to look for a precise answer."

- Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler)


I found this statement to be accurate. My field trip began in Frankfurt, at the wonderful library of the Max-Planck-Institute. Wonderful, because the spacious, modern building offered veritable breathing space for individual research. With its well-equipped reading rooms, generously sized work desks, rich bookshelves stocked with literature from the bottom to the top and ample magazine stock, my first sense when I arrived on the first day of my field trip was: this is an amazing place for deep focused work. Wonderful also, because the staff working at the library was so friendly and ready to help me navigate the library’s stock of literature that it was a pleasure to return every day. I can wholeheartedly say the same about the Berlin State library. The real surprise, however, was the wealth of research material I found that I did not expect based on my preparatory browsing of the library catalogues. Being there in person, walking through the reading rooms, browsing the bookshelves and further following the references of the literature I found, felt like entering a different world of research – as kitschy as this may sound. Reflecting now after I returned from my field trip, I am astonished how easily I compiled the literature I found and completed a lengthy draft concerning aspects of research for our third and fourth bodies of jurisprudence (the jurisprudence of the Enlightenment and Individualism). Thus, for my research, I have found that the libraries in Frankfurt and Berlin were most serendipitous.


Now, while some may view serendipity as something dreadful – after all, it does not solve the issue of uncertainty before embarking on the field trip – it is actually an innate aspect of research. If we think about it, is not all research dependent upon serendipity? We may set out on our chosen research journey inspired by a question, a curiosity we have in a given topic, or by passion about a certain issue. However, whether the result will be what we hoped for, what we expected, or if it will even be something that leads to further research remains unknown until we reach that stage of our research. The truth is, despite drafting elaborate research plans and proposals, we usually do not know what our research will look like, how and if our ambitious research ideas will come to fruition. In fact, Albert Einstein observed:


If we knew what it was we are doing it wouldn’t be called research would it?

- Albert Einstein


Rather, we guess. Based on what knowledge we have about the field, the literature, and other researchers’ works, we make a rough estimation of potential success (however defined) based on which we proceed. Sometimes, even when we do not guess, we have an instinct that a particular direction may be worth pursuing. We follow our intuition. There is thus, a perhaps surprisingly personal component to research, even in a field as traditional and perhaps considered frequently as being dull as legal research. Such a personal component may not fit under established categories of rigorous research methodology. This brings me to the aspect of our inner self in research. Our inner self affects how we approach and produce research. Regarding our approach to research, personal (i.e. linked to our personality) components, such as experience, identity, and intuition influence how we undertake research. In this sense, research methodology, even if one follows established steps, is always personal and always an expression of our inner worlds. Regarding the outcome or product of our research, our inner self is reflected by the intellectual output, but also our use of language, including the words and tone we use in writing and oral presentation of our research. Thus, in my opinion, besides acknowledging the significance of our inner self in research, awareness of it and how it may influence our research methodology is something worth considering for our learning and personal development. Moreover, its role in research deserves more attention in academic discourses concerning the study of research as such.


Max-Planck-Institut für Rechtsgeschichte und Rechtstheorie, Frankfurt

In the age of digitalisation, it may be tempting to undertake fewer field trips. Given that an abundance of sources is available online and the constant financial considerations of research institutions, on paper, it may be easy to conclude that undertaking field trips is a luxury, i.e. something expensive that is pleasant to have but is not necessary. As technology progresses and digitalisation proliferates, with all the advantages it brings, I think it is worth being aware how this perception of field trips as a luxury – in particular in the context of desk-based research – is a recent, twentieth century phenomenon. Before that, physically researching at libraries and archives was often an essential part of research. Realising, how swiftly the perception from essential to luxurious can change should remind us of reevaluating what we consider to be essential or a luxury for our research.


My field trips changed how I view such activities in the context of desk-based research. The reason I could draft the above-mentioned lengthy research document was simply that, in physically visiting these libraries and being inspired by the written knowledge they preserve, I could fully immerse in specific aspects of my research, without being distracted by the other daily and administrative tasks a researcher must consider when working at their home institution. Doing these field trips also enriched my personal experience of research and how to navigate different research environments in short time frames. I also made the first-hand experience of how taking the risk and betting on the serendipity of libraries is a gamble worth making. Even if I would not have found the literature beyond what I identified through the library catalogues as part of my preparations for the trips, undertaking these field trips showed me a different approach to research. Probably, even a negative experience (e.g. not being able to gather the literature or data I hoped for) would have brought valuable lessons on how to make a future field trip more successful. Most importantly, my field trips inspired me to reflect on my personal research experience.


"The important thing in science is not so much to obtain new facts as to discover new ways of thinking about them."

- William Lawrence Bragg

 

I would slightly rephrase this quote as follows: The important thing in doing field trips is not so much to achieve a set research outcome as to discover new ways of reflecting upon how we undertake our research, which inspires us to develop and progress as researchers. In this sense, the field trips I undertook in June were essential and most successful.

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