Monday, August 28, 2006

Why does academia ignore agricultural law?

Grain harvestOver at The Conglomerate, there's plenty of buzz over Larry Gavin's recent SSRN post, The Strange Death of Academic Commercial Law. Christine Hurt and Vic Fleischer have each posted thoughtful proposals for reconfiguring the law school curriculum to bring this venerable and valuable subject back to legal academia.

What concerns us here at Agricultural Law and the larger Jurisdynamics Network, however, and what should concern everyone who has a stake in this business, is why law schools have never given any attention to agricultural law as a coherent, dignified discipline. This problem, whose resolution lies well beyond the reach of a single blog post to address, poses a serious challenge for this forum. Why indeed should legal academics devote any effort to the legal problems that attend the production, processing, marketing, and consumption of food, fiber, and other agricultural products?

Agricultural Law's very existence hinges on a successful effort to answer this question.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The answer to this question is indeed too large for a blog post, or even a response. But it is worth spilling some ink because (a) I would like to make a long and successful career out of agricultural law in the law school, (b) as Professor Chen puts it "a successful effort to answer this question" may extend the life of Agricultural Law, and (c) the question exists.

This comment focuses on the "coherent" and "dignified" language of the post. First I identify why agricultural law is both coherent and dignified. Then I pose some further questions as to why it has not been (at least in some law schools) regarded as such. Finally, I offer my take on why we should study the subject.

I think it is a bit of an overstatement to say that law schools (which to me must include the legal academy) have never regarded agricultural law as a dignified discipline. The work of Kershen, Kelley, Hamilton, Schneider, Chen, Davidson, Pedersen, Meyer, Thorson, and others shows that there is activity in the field, and classes in agricultural law are being taught in some law schools. I regard that work and those classes as dignified and my law school's faculty supports and encourages my course in agricultural law. But I cannot say whether that is the general consensus amongst law schools and law faculties. In any event, I do not think that dignity requires a discipline to garner the approval of all law schools. I hope that is the case anyway, because some are likely beyond our reach.

Three questions come to mind on the coherency front: Does coherence matter—i.e., is coherence a necessary trait of a successful discipline? If coherency does matter, what does coherency mean? And, if coherency can be defined (and if it matters), is agricultural law coherent?

The first question could be stated as "What is a discipline?" If a discipline is simply a subject to which an identifiable group of academics devote their efforts, then agricultural law surely is one. And if that is a workable definition of a discipline, then a definition of coherency as one trait of a discipline emerges. From an entry-level academic's standpoint (someone trying to define their role in the academic world), coherency brings to mind the notion of boundaries. That is, a discipline must be marked by a set of lines that allows us to feel like we are studying some thing. Those lines serve at least two related functions: (1) they allow us to identify people who work on a common set of problems and (2) they allow us to define the scope of that which is relevant to our efforts (an important aspect of study in a world with ever increasing sources and amounts of information). Therein may be a definition of coherency, or coherency for the purpose of law-related disciplines: The presence of characteristics that bind together legal rules (using the term "rules" loosely) in a way that provides an identifiable set of material for study and an identifiable group of people who study that material.

Under that definition, is agricultural law coherent? I posit that it is. There are a few characteristics of the study that unify a diverse body of legal rules. It is often the study of various exceptions to legal regimes with the production of food and fiber as a unifying characteristic. It also involves the study of legal regimes specifically erected because of agricultural activity. And there is surely sufficient material to study and an identifiable group of people who study it. So it seems that agricultural law has the makings of a discipline, complete with some level of coherence.

But even if agricultural law is coherent and dignified, that does not mean that it has been recognized as such. Aside from the general caveat mentioned above—that an academic discipline need not strive for the approval of all law schools—I pose some further questions about the problem of recognition.

As a Juridynamics reader, one could ask "Is agricultural law's problem its 'bigness'"? That is, is it too vast an empire, too complex a creature, too limitless in its scope to be a recognizable discipline? I don't know. Indeed, it touches upon a vast array of subjects. So many so that those who study it often find themselves specialized in particular areas. But is it any broader than other subjects worthy of dignified-and-coherent-discipline status? Maybe it is the presence of other academics like agricultural economists that makes it unappealing to legal academia. But why would that be? Do legal academics believe that agriculture, including the law that governs the sector, should be left to economists?

Are there other industry/sector-based subjects that exist as disciplines and are recognized as such? We have a construction law course in our curriculum, but I have no idea if that is a common phenomenon, nor do I know if that subject could be (or has been) thought of as a dignified and coherent discipline. And I wonder if there is a difference between subjects worthy of a spot in the course schedule versus subjects worthy of discipline status. I further wonder if that difference can be traced to how we perceive the law school: as a house of academic pursuit (following a graduate school model of education) versus a house for training lawyers (following a vocational-school-for-lawyers model).

But, to answer Professor Chen's question with a variety of underlying and yet unexplored beliefs, biases, and passions, I offer this: I, as a legal academic, should devote my efforts to studying the legal problems that attend the ag sector because people, and the lawyers who represent them, must deal with those problems. Thus, why should we worry about the legal problems of the ag sector? Because they exist.

8/24/2006 1:19 PM  

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