24 Mar Symposium on Early Career International Law Academia: Neither on the Outside, Nor Fully in? Working Within Perceived Dichotomies of Academia and Practice in International Criminal Law as a Young Scholar
[Gabriele Chlevickaite is Assistant Professor at VU Amsterdam, a Board Member at the Center for International Criminal Justice and a fellow at the Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement (NSCR).]
Tensions between academic independence and practical relevance are long-standing, and increasingly subject to debate, with little guidance to those on either side of the equation. However, the academia-practitioner relationship is no simple matter, especially for freshly-baked academics transitioning from practice. What is the ‘right’ distance from former employers and colleagues? To what extent should practical concerns orient research questions? And if they should, how to overcome the burdens of gaining trust and institutional buy-in, how to make the conducted research *actually* useful? The answers to these questions largely depend on individually (and institutionally) created and/or perceived boundaries between the worlds of academia and practice, each guarding their own values, culture, and accepted practices. As this post will attempt to show, the academia-practitioner dichotomy in international (criminal) law is not only unhelpful for the field, but also rather illusory. Importantly, while the observations below stem from the authors’ experience with international criminal law, similar tensions pervade legal and other fields as well (see e.g. Empson (2012), Rynes (2001), Bansal et al (2012)). For young scholars, deliberate self-positioning on the spectrum of involvement/detachment is a good place to start.
Is There Really a Clear Cut ‘Academia’ and ‘Practice’ of International Criminal Law?
It is no secret that the world of international criminal law (ICL) is founded upon the efforts of scholars, early adopters and observers of this, rather new, legal order (see e.g. here, here and here). It is far from unusual for a respected ICL practitioner to have an academic profile and output; ICL journals happily publish practitioner-authored articles, and both summer and regular academic programs regularly feature institutional representatives. Similarly, many ICL scholars are keen observers of legal developments, not only in terms of academic publications, but as participants in court proceedings (admittedly, not always without controversy), as amicus curiae, or as independent experts. As Mikkel Christensen argues, for the ‘rather narrow academic field of ICL, practical relevance is prized and may ultimately determine the ‘worth’ of scholarly contributions’, furthering academic engagement with developments in the field.
Thus, while both academia and practice certainly have their own, distinct, professional goals and practices, the two worlds are continuously intertwining, mirroring, developing, and expanding side by side. To put it simply, ICL institutions have an implicit need for researchers to develop, assess, and critique their practices (and, hopefully, they are also interested in the consequences of their work), while ICL scholars need the institutions to keep producing the work that is to be examined, written about, and taught. A better way to describe this relationship, then, would be as interdependent, rather than a dichotomous or oppositional existence.
This is not to say that a dichotomous relationship between academia and practice is a complete illusion: for those (individuals or institutions) who perceive and practice the opposition, it is as real as it could be, a self-perpetuating boundary that exists to the extent that it is observed. A firm adherence to this view will likely inhibit the development of both sides of the equation: depriving practice of scholarly thought and empirically based evaluation of practices, while further detaching scholarly understanding of ICL ‘law in practice’ and its consequences.
Now, What Can we do to Better Navigate the Two Worlds?
Let’s say, as an academic, one decides to take the anti-dichotomy stance, and work towards academically sound, practically-relevant research. This person then has some aspects to consider and decisions to make: i) how to develop research projects as useful to the institutions as they are to scholarly knowledge production (being useful); ii) how to convince the institutions of academic trustworthiness (being trusted); and iii) the extent to which and how to engage the institutions beyond communications disseminating research findings post-facto (being used).
On being useful. Societal relevance is integral to ‘responsible’ research, and one way of working towards it is by examining the challenges encountered in or related to practice. Involving practitioners in developing research questions is certainly an effective way to proceed; however, this does not mean that scholarly work must answer questions practitioners already have but are unable to answer (though there is not much wrong with addressing such questions, if done carefully). More importantly, the task is also to discover the questions that are important, but not currently considered. Here, multi-disciplinarity is a key advantage of academic pursuits: there is more to law than law, and we should not forget the contributions of, for example, psychologists, criminologists, anthropologists, and political scientists to our understanding of the functioning and effects of ICL. From this perspective, as a young scholar, one might think of utility as a way to bring a more complex, systematic, real-world understanding of what ICL does and with what consequences, both within and beyond the courtroom.
On being trustworthy: the importance of ethics and integrity. Deciding tobe practice-oriented, or practice-informed, is of course no guarantee that a researcher, especially an early-career one, will gain access to the materials necessary to develop relevant research avenues or examine the materials that would be the most informative. Challenges related to access and gaining trust are complex. Institutions or practitioners might be unaware of the codes of conduct and professional practices that institutionally-affiliated researchers must adhere to (e.g. here and here). In addition, they may also have had a poor experience in the past and be wary of new projects. While I know of no fool-proof remedy, communication about and adherence to the highest ethical standards are vital. The onus of improving trust is on the researcher: academic standards vary, adherence to them might vary as well, and one cannot expect institutions to build trust upon vague notions of confidentiality and professional conduct. As such, consider communicating how anonymity and confidentiality are practically ensured, what the data storage and protection practices are, and how individual accountability of researchers is enforced. Over the years, as ICL scholarship (with any luck) keeps developing into a strong, independent discipline, the trust relationship should improve accordingly.
On being used: stakeholder role. Finally, treating institutions and their activities as ‘subjects’ is traditionally accepted, but suboptimal. Where a practically- and academically-important question is identified, a more efficient way forward might be to bring the institution on board. By being empowered to ask their own questions, offer avenues of exploration, actively participate in the research itself and the dissemination of its findings, the institutions or practitioners can co-produce and co-own the (academically-led and funded) research process. This is especially relevant where research questions require access to particularly sensitive materials, which the organisations have reason to keep under close watch (e.g. contact details of witnesses, evidence lists, identities of staff). As an example, important work on witnesses at international criminal courts and tribunals was produced in collaboration with the institutions themselves, and to this day serves as an empirical basis for our understanding of victim-witness motivations and experiences of court processes (e.g. here, here and here). Similarly, recent critiques of evidentiary bases and fact-finding processes of the International Criminal Court (ICC) could be better understood if placed in context by conducting, for example, systematic, comparative examinations of the ICC and other courts (e.g. domestic institutions prosecuting international crimes). While some of that work could be undertaken ‘from the outside’, there is no denying that access to internal workings would be both more efficient, in terms of finding informative materials, and more effective, in terms of being able to provide complete and relevant answers. Institutional buy-in and a stakeholder role, while relatively uncommon in ICL, could also address some of the trust concerns, as practitioners could be jointly responsible for research process and outputs.
And it is here that I come to the question of whether prior practical experience is an advantage or a hindrance for academic work? For the above, practically-acquired knowledge and experience, alongside personal networks, could be capitalised on. Having a connection to a field of interest would also make it easier to keep abreast of new developments, important challenges that might not reach the public, and stay ahead of the curve in developing future research. As always, there is a balance to be struck between capitalising on prior experience versus maintaining critical distance, which might prove more difficult where work experience and personal networks enter the equation.
To wrap up, the decisions we make as early career academics are best informed not by prior scholarly or professional experience, but by our individual ambitions and understanding of our role in society, responsibilities towards academic values, as well as towards the subjects of our research. There is no one right way on how “useful” or “used” academic research should be, and we need both involved and critical perspectives. A careful consideration of the costs and benefits of taking a certain stance towards prior professional experience and/or institutional buy-in can bring a degree of certainty in planning your academic career, developing research plans, and engaging (or disengaging) from the world of practice.