What are rules for? What's at stake if we assume that they're neutral? And if we want rules to be progressive, does it matter who makes them? Socio-legal scholar Swethaa Ballakrishnen joins Uncommon Sense to reflect on this and more, highlighting the value of studying law not just in theory but in action, and drawing on a career spanning law and academia in India and the USA.
As the author of "Accidental Feminism", which explores unintended parity in the Indian legal profession, Swethaa talks to Rosie and Alexis about intention and whether it is always needed for positive outcomes. We also ask: in a society characterised as “post-truth”, does anyone even care about rules anymore? Plus, Swethaa dissects the trope of “neutrality” – firmly embedded in legal discourse, from the idea of “blind justice” to the notion of equality before the law. There are dangers, they explain, to assuming that law is neutral, particularly given that it is often those in power who get to make and extend the rules – something critical race scholars have long been aware of.
Swethaa also fills us in on their recent interest in the TV show "Ted Lasso" and considers pop culture that speaks to our theme, including the series "Made in Heaven" and "Extraordinary Attorney Woo", plus a short film by Arun Falara.
Guest: Swethaa Ballakrishnen
Hosts: Rosie Hancock, Alexis Hieu Truong
Executive Producer: Alice Bloch
Sound Engineer: David Crackles
Music: Joe Gardner
Artwork: Erin Aniker
Find more about Uncommon Sense at The Sociological Review.
From The Sociological Review
By Swethaa Ballakrishnen
Further reading, viewing and listening
Alexis Hieu Truong 0:06
Hi, Welcome to Uncommon Sense from the Sociological Review. I'm Alexis Hieu Truong , in Gatineau/Ottawa, Canada,
Rosie Hancock 0:14
And I'm Rosie Hancock in Sydney, Australia.
Alexis Hieu Truong 0:17
And we're all about tackling taken for granted ideas, concepts from atypical and unexpected angles. And always with the idea being that we take a notion for which we tend, like it tends to be a kind of common sense understanding out there, and then we flip it around a bit and see it more critically, more sociologically. Today's show wraps up series two – where we've looked at ideas around subjects like performance, anxiety, the idea of Europeans, solidarity, tastes – and today, we're looking at the idea and the point of rules.
Rosie Hancock 0:57
Yes, so this show is coming to you from the start of a new year, which I guess is a pretty rule heavy time, whether that's because you've set yourself some limits and opted for Veganuary. Or maybe you've scribbled down, you know, some resolutions and an attempt at self regulation. But really, even though rules might sound a little bit dull, and you know, we should totally think about why we think rules might be dull, they do structure our whole lives. And they certainly rests on a whole load of so called common sense, which we just love to unpick on this show.
Alexis Hieu Truong 1:30
Yeah, just like also a lot of assumptions around rules like that, without them, things don't happen, that they're what stops society from collapsing, that they're typically a kind of neutral, maybe. But then there are also other questions like does it actually matter who makes the rules and who enforces them? And what happens when rules have unintended consequences? Also, like, does anyone care about rules anymore?
Rosie Hancock 1:57
So today, we're pushing it all of these questions with Swethaa Ballakrishnen, who's the author, among other things of "Accidental Feminism" which explores unintended gender parity in the Indian legal profession. Swethaa is a professor of law, and by courtesy, a whole host of other things as well – including sociology and Asian American Studies – at the University of California, Irvine, and they join us from that state. Hi Swethaa!
Alexis Hieu Truong 2:24
Swethaa Ballakrishnen 2:24
Hi. Thanks for having me on the show.
Alexis Hieu Truong 2:26
So Swethaa, you trained and worked as a lawyer in Hyderabad, India, but you later became an academic studying law and legal worlds. Can you tell us a bit about that journey?
Swethaa Ballakrishnen 2:38
Yeah, I actually got to law school by absolute accident. If you know other Indian kids, you know that the highlight of what you do after high school is hardly ever law. I didn't get into medicine or engineering. And the one law school actually – at the time –that accepted students out of high school, I didn't make the cut off for actually taking the exam. So I thought I was actually going to do literature and I enrolled in a local campus, and I started taking literature classes. And it just so happened that I happened to be on a waitlist for another school that had opened that year. So I went. I had no idea that almost blase decision to start law school would change the course of my life. And once I finished law school, it was clear to me that I was interested in sort of legal education – like what, how eliteness was all around me, but never mentioned – the kinds of things that you pay attention to, but don't really have time to theorise when you're in law school, because you're busy trying to just finish and get a job. A couple of years after law school, I decided it might be worth studying the law and teaching the law and see if that was a fit. And so I came back to get a degree in the US because I thought it might be useful to start thinking about an academic path to some of the questions that I was interested in. And I got a scholarship to come study in the US. And it just so happened that a lot of my mentors were studying the legal profession. They were studying lawyers – that was part of my interest in even coming to law school here.
Rosie Hancock 4:04
Yeah. So Swethaa, I mean, I'm trying to think about you know why people decide to study the law sociologically, and I wonder, you know – I think you might have said at some point that you had people tell you that it wasn't that interesting.
Swethaa Ballakrishnen 4:19
They definitely told me that t wasn't professionally useful for me to study lawyers.
Rosie Hancock 4:26
Yeah, like why?
Swethaa Ballakrishnen 4:27
So that was in the 70s. In the 80s, studying lawyers was a sort of fairly important part of the tradition of sociology. People studied lawyers – it was a way to study inequality, professional elites were called site to study stratification, organisational sort of diversity – you know, thinks about how institutions are formed. And then that set of scholars sort of trailed away after a point. There weren't a lot of schools that were dedicated to the Sociology of Law to start with. And there were fewer schools that cared about lawyers as an area of study, right? So when I was in law school, I actually had at least two mentors take me aside and say "well, I know this was interesting to you when you were in law school. But sociology is not, you know, this isn't a very high stakes thing to study". And I was interested in sort of studying India and lawyers, right. So this is like, the periphery of the periphery in American sociology is not that concerned about sites outside of America. They definitely aren't concerned with sites outside of America, unless it is from a sort of developmental perspective, right. So it's always a top down understanding of how sites outside of America work. And it wasn't a comparative study. So I wasn't interested in comparing India to America, I was studying, I was interested in sort of the Global South as a case study in itself. So I've had multiple, very well intentioned people over the course of my early career, telling me that all of these were already too far away from the means to be viable on the job market, if I wanted to get a job in the US. And certainly studying lawyers was not going to be the clincher to try and get me a job. And in all fairness, they were right. I did not get a job in a sociology department, I was on the periphery when I went on the job market, it took me much longer to land my first job than I imagined it would have if I was studying something that was much more core to the discipline that I was trained in.
Alexis Hieu Truong 6:19
But nonetheless, right, so now you are a sociolegal scholar, as we said in our intro, right? So it's, there's definitely a sociological approach there. But what does that actually mean? And what are some of the, I guess, exciting directions that your field is, is going in at the moment? And kind of the new work out there?
Swethaa Ballakrishnen 6:39
Yeah. So maybe we should talk a little bit about what the Sociology of Law even is right? What is the study of Sociology of Law? So this is not always sociologists, but a lot of sociologists –anthropologist, political scientists, critical geographers now –thinking about how law works in action, so was using a disciplinary method to take a bunch of rules and say, Well, this is what it is on the books, what does it look like when it's actually happening in communities amongst people? What are cultural understandings of a law, how are people working with an idea in in real time and real place? And that was interesting to me as I think a student, definitely is a scholar – and now that's sort of like my strain of inquiry when I when I do work – but really, the original design of sociology doesn't go away, right? It's still an idea of how can I take a particular understanding of a specific site – in this case – law, right – learn something about it, that is true to the particular site, but also find a way in which to make it relevant or generalisable or interesting to others who have nothing to do with the site, right. So my research, as I said, is on has been in the past on India, right? You could look at and say, yeah, but what does that got to do with anything in the US? And I don't have to actually compare it to the US for it to be relevant to the US. If I still study it with a lens, that sociolegal I might still have concepts from that site that might have other extensions in other contexts – sometimes that you don't sort of think of as necessarily connected phenomenon, right? – like, why should how, you know, elite women in India, in particular kinds of firms say something about capitalism and globalisation, globalisation more generally – but I think it can. Interesting work. There's so much exciting work, I think the sort of, there's one main association for sociolegal scholars – the Law Society Association – it's based in the US, but it also has international extensions every five years and some of the work that's coming through those, that association to me is very exciting, because it reminds me of the directions that the field can take. So I was trained in sort of versions of it that cared about legal globalisation, and how can lawyers change the way in which cultures are made right? So Bryant Garth and Yves Dezalay have earlier work on Transnational lawyers and how the way in which lawyers connected with each other, changed economic fields in different countries and how, you know, for example, lawyers in Asia changed the way in which legal reproduction happened globally. That was sort of a framework that inspired me but like now what inspires me is new work on global legal activism. What does it mean to do activism as a scholar? What is scholar activism? And I learned so much from these different perspectives of how to think about the limits of what legal work can do or what disciplinary work can do, and who that work ought to be doing that kind of extension for.
Alexis Hieu Truong 9:37
You mentioned the question of how law plays out in action. I know you're familiar with the work and ideas of Kareem Khubchandani – who was our guest a while back for an episode on performance – which was, that was such a great one. Can we say that sociolegal studies is indeed interested in the performance of law in a way. is that a theme we can pull on here?
Swethaa Ballakrishnen 9:58
Oh, I love that. I love that! Kareem will love that. First of all, nothing is as cool as the work Kareem does, so I feel like if sociolegal studies was trying to reach that status of Khubchandani performativity, it would fail. But having said that, I think there's still... I love that construction – this idea of... there's law as performance is actually a construction that is within the field – so people do talk about how law performs. It's actually making me think of an, a law society article from maybe a decade ago that Kathryne Young wrote about the Hawaiian cockfight, and how legal identities were connected to the ways in which people thought about legality and illegality in actually doing cockfights. And it was an ethnography of a cockfight, right. And you could think – how could an ethnography about a cockfight in Hawaii actually tell us something about law as performance or law in action or embedded legal consciousness,? – but it does – it tells you something about culture, it tells you something about how people feel connected or disconnected from the rules that are supposed to bind the societies that they're in.
Rosie Hancock 11:05
So I mean, like speaking of performance, right, I mean, you know, there's so much pop culture out there about lawyers – and why they might go into law – and almost all those TV shows, like "Suita" or "Better call Saul" or "The legend of the Obamas."
Swethaa Ballakrishnen 11:20
Rosie Hancock 11:20
And, you know, these seem to be kind of – they're probably based on stereotypes and massive generalisations, right – but it kind of presents this picture of at least law in North America... I'm... whichever, you know, even me in Australia knows about because we have, you know, cultures global, right? But you know, I'm personally less familiar with the scene and story in parts of India. And I was curious what difference you observe between cultures around law and law schools in India?
Swethaa Ballakrishnen 11:50
Rosie Hancock 11:50
Because I think you studied in in Hyderabad.
Swethaa Ballakrishnen 11:52
Rosie Hancock 11:53
And in the USA, yeah. So you've seen like the big schools in the US and India?
Swethaa Ballakrishnen 11:58
Yeah, so I'll first say that culture is global – but when I was in law school culture wasn't that global – this was before the internet, right? So the culture is global now, but someone made a reference to I don't know, Terminator Two – like, which is a Schwarzenegger movie – and I had no clue what they were talking about, and like, maybe others did, right. But I think the sort of permeability of culture that we take for granted now is not something that was quite as seamless in the 90s. So I want to start there by saying that, you know, there's also been an evolution of when culture is global and when culture is not. And the second thing I'll say is that, on the other hand, it is true that these cultural scripts of how school should be and how eliteness gets performed in professional spaces is somewhat global – even if you don't know identically what it is that happens in another space, you have an image of it – and I sort of speak about this in my book as this idea of mimicking something that you don't quite know, but you sort of want to get to the idea of – and I, you know, I use the isomorphism logic of, you know, how you're trying to mimic the exact same thing that something else is. And sometimes you don't know what the actual original thing is. So you try to get as close to it as you can, but then you might mimic even better than you would if you were actually just someone that was following script and rule boundedness of how to mimic something. And so, I use this to say that, you know, there's a certain kind of, what Beth Mertz – who's a legal anthropologist –calls "the language of the law school" And that language of the law school – of a certain kinds of eliteness, of a certain kind of performance, of a certain kind of embedded logic of who holds power and who's likely to be seen as effective – transcends, I think, different kinds of boundaries – in the same way that eliteness transcends different kinds of boundaries. And so yeah, I think in the US, there is a definite culture of law schools and lawyers. And I will also say that I have not watched these law shows on principle – I have watched like every medical drama known to person but it gives me like a personal quirk to watch a law show because I know every part of it, that's wrong, and it really annoys me! But I've been watching “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” – which is about the Korean legal system, rght. And that's an easier premise, because I actually don't know the process. But all to say the cultural logics of Indian lawyers – post the freedom movement – didn't actually exist very much. So a lot of the lawyers were part of the freedom movement, so they're part of a decolonial praxis at a certain point in time. But the cultural appeal of lawyers after that sort of went down until these five year law schools started in the 90s. And so but when... by the time when I was growing up, it wasn't actually a great you know, very elite, culturally useful thing to be a lawyer, because the prestige both culturally and performatively had gone down from freedom – like post the freedom movement in the in the 40s, to when I was in law school in the 90s – that half decade was not a great time for legal consciousness.
Alexis Hieu Truong 15:06
Like today we're talking about rules and trying to take some of the assumptions about those things and see them from a sideways angle, as we mentioned, right? And so let's talk about that more your, your 2021 book "Accidental Feminism". Can you tell us about that research and kind of what prompted it?
Swethaa Ballakrishnen 15:25
Yeah I was very influenced by the by the people I knew after after I finished my master's degree at Harvard, I had sort of a fellowship at the law school with the, what was then called the Centre on the Legal Profession. The faculty director was interested in studying globalising countries and legal profession in different kinds of countries. So David Wilkins was the faculty director and I was the fellow and so India became like a sort of comparative project that was of interest at that, the year that I was there. If you remember in the, in the early 2000s, business process outsourcing was a very – do you remember this like outsourcing was a really big deal? Everyone thought that was going to change labour market dynamics entirely – and it probably has and probably always existed in different forms – but international outsourcing of legal services was very interesting to sort of ethics consultants, but also those that were studying the professions. So my first project was actually on thinking about the globalisation of law through these outsourcing units. And I thought "oh, this is really interesting. I wonder how this is changing the eliteness of the law firm?" So before my book even started and that research project, I was sort of starting to think about, it would be cool to think about law firms in India as a way in which to think about globalisation. And then I got into grad school in sociology, and then started doing the research for this project, which I thought would be how are law firms in different parts of the world adopting cultural scripts? And so I was interested in, does the culture the idea of the law firm look the same in different places? And that's where this started. It was really interesting, because one of the first, you know, my preliminary interviews had respondent after respondent saying some version of, you know 'this is all great, but really, gender is not an issue' – because I had one of those questions, you know, in your interview guide, I was interested in like, what is it like being a woman in the law firm, right? – because it, it is an important research question in the US, like, multiple people have written about what being a woman or a sort of racial minority in this country means to the practice of law. And most people say, 'well, it really, you know, gender really doesn't matter, right' And of course, when you're trained in sociology, you can read that as – oh, you must be so elite, you think this is not a problem for you, right – and then I sort of actually look started looking at the data. And it was fascinating because India is actually one of the least feminised legal professions in the world. And what I mean by that is, there's a way in which post the 1990s almost all countries in the world have over 30% feminisation. So 30% of all lawyers are female, in most countries, this is true of across the world, right? India has closer to 10. And so only 10% of all lawyers are female. And this research was – on the demography of like the populations of lawyers – was coming out around the same time that I was in the field, and around the same time that these, you know, respondents in my interviews, were saying, oh, gender doesn't matter. So the you know, just the juxtaposition of like having people on the ground saying 'oh, this doesn't matter, gender doesn't matter' – and the larger data that says, well, in India, very few women are lawyers – just sitting that side by side was really interesting. And I realised that it was actually true that in very elite law firms, women were more than 50% of all lawyers – which is just counterintuitive in every way you think about it –because usually, when when women start to join a workforce, they're either in very female typed parts of the profession, or they're in parts of the profession that are very low status. So to find women – not just be in small numbers in the profession – but to actually find the be very well represented in the highest status versions of the profession was actually really intriguing as a sociologist, because it went against all of the gender theories that we have, in other countries, it goes against what we expect inequality to look like.
Rosie Hancock 19:27
It's such a common problem for researchers – well common problem, it's something that I certainly identify – with going into the field and and sort of find... not necessarily finding exactly what you're expecting and being surprised by what's in there. So I think that's... I'm glad that you pointed it out. But I also wanted to ask when you say you know, if you're saying feminism's actually occurring here, what you know, what is feminism in this case? Are we, are we talking about 50/50 representation as being...
Swethaa Ballakrishnen 19:54
Rosie Hancock 19:54
...feminism or something, something deeper, like like ideology or something?
Swethaa Ballakrishnen 19:58
I actually – that's why it's called accidental feminism – I don't think it's ideology at all. And the book makes a very clear case that I'm not even convinced it's feminism, right? I actually run querying the term feminism to ask whether people without ideology – that still do the work of what we initially expected and or hoped would happen – could produce outcomes that are seemingly feminist on paper –and what do we do with outcomes that we like, but that don't achieve the very thing we asked for it to do, right. So it's actually complicating that word 'feminism' which I don't read, I don't think 50/50 gender representation is feminism and I don't think any global south feminists would agree that that is feminism. But I do think there's something interesting there about where this gender representation is happening, right. So the the sort of construction of a very specific kind of elite professional that is also gendered, that is not just about class reproduction, because a lot of these women don't come from sort of rich households they come from households that are you know, that, that – it was a production of a certain kind of middle class modernity and and middle class globalising possibility, that was really interesting – that there was just not feminism in the way you would naturally think about it, but still a gender outcome that you would not expect. And which couldn't be just sort of swatted away as not important because it didn't look like what we would expect to find from a feminist outcome.
Rosie Hancock 21:25
Okay, so if I can attempt to sum up and elaborate here, you found a kind of accidental feminism – in that it wasn't necessarily legislated for or set out and policy – and it certainly also wasn't expected by you. And that feminism – I'm using.... also wasn't what everyone would call feminism – it was at the level of representation ratios thing rather than being something more ideological say. But nonetheless, the interesting thing here – one of many – is that these outcomes that some might label feminist had occurred even when not explicitly intended.
Swethaa Ballakrishnen 22:03
Yeah, I think there's a context for this, right. There's a lot of sociological research where people study intention and how the actual production of that outcome is unintentional, but in a negative way. So a lot of law in society researchers, the law says X, the law in action is actually Y and Y is worse off than what X's ideal type was. And so it was interesting to study a project where there was not an expectation to start with, and then the outcome – the unintended consequence – was actually positive, which is somewhat subversive in and of itself.
Alexis Hieu Truong 22:38
Swethaa, what does this tell us about rules and their value or perhaps their pointlessness?
Swethaa Ballakrishnen 22:45
I would urge us to not think about, you know, structure and rules and the intention to keep equitable workforces as pointless, right – nothing in my book is to suggest that intention is not important. As you know, someone who's politically committed to intention, I find it to be crucial for how organisations and institutions are built. The project was really about also asking what we did with outcomes that were unintentional, but also somewhat positive, which sort of then queers how we think about intention. So it's not to do away with intention – but also to offer space for the unintentional – which I think can be useful in the world that we live in, where a lot of intention has gone haywire. And the product of looking at different spaces – I think I end the book on the suggestion that we should be not just looking at different places, but also seeing the places we look at a little bit differently. And I think that's the theoretical crux of the book. That's, that's the part that travels beyond the site, right? Like, so it's not just about women in India in an organisation – it's about how do we look for generative positive possibility?
Alexis Hieu Truong 23:58
And this kind of leads to a broader, more abstract question, which is like, Can equality – or rather like maybe equity – actually come from unequal and non diverse organisations? And if it does, like, is it really a durable or kind of deep type of equality? Like in one of your pieces? I think you mentioned the point made by the legal ethics pioneer, Deborah Rhode, that despite its commitment to equality, law was one of the least diverse professions in the USA. And I guess the question is, whether it matters who is making the rules or maybe like how diverse those peoples are?
Swethaa Ballakrishnen 24:35
Yeah so, like all good ethics questions. The answer to this is complicated, right. So on the one hand, it is true that just having a diverse population in positions of leadership isn't going to serve the ends we deserve and demand and you know, the state of the world right now is ample proof that that is very well the case. On the other hand, I think that is something – there is a sort of nugget of radical possibility in organisations that are represented in specific ways, by diverse individuals, right – so when you produce a certain kind of diverse pool of an organisation, it doesn't matter if they're not working in exactly the scripted ways that you expect them to work, it still changes the tenor of that organisation changes the cultural, you know, arc of what that organisation can do over the course of, you know, many years. And for the law firms I study, yeah, you can look at it and dismiss it and say – well, these are, you know, urban, upper middle class English speaking, you know, women who are, who are sort of just reproducing their hierarchies in these specific spaces – and it's definitely true that those kinds of inequalities are, you know, at front and centre, as I speak about in my book. But it's also true that in other contexts, this hasn't happened. And that has changed the arc of how these firms grow and change and become their own over time. So for a young person starting in a law firm like this, being able to see what it might look like for them over a 10, 20 year period changes the ways in which they experience the organisation – as opposed to being in an organisation where there is nobody that can possibly be successful in that organisation. So I think it can have longer term effects. And I think I'm in that sort of tiny camp of humans that think all optimistic outcomes demand that we have patience, right? And sort of recursive reproduction of possibility – can't... it's not going to happen overnight, it's not going to look the ways you think it might – I think I'm drawn to the messy outcomes and the possibility they offer us for generative, long term possibility.
Rosie Hancock 26:41
So I wanted to kind of shift the focus of what we're talking about just slightly, although it is kind of related to, I guess, questions of diversity. And that's you've written about same sex marriage, I think about how what looks like rules for equality can also be an – and, and I'm paraphrasing you here, so do correct me if I'm wrong – that these rules can be constraining and exclusive leaving out other groups. So this, you know, like that there's an edge or an outside to a rule in a way, can you tell me more about that.
Swethaa Ballakrishnen 27:11
So this is about the Indian sort of marriage equality debate – and sort of actually marriage equality all over and what what it's done in terms of reproducing this model of a specific format of what marriage ought to look like – which is even more traditional than what a lot of queer advocates and sort of inhabitants might want from our lives. But I, on the other hand, I think that our possibilities and that too, right – like it is true that you know, marriage might not be an ideal everybody wants, but if a legal system is predicated on marriage, then all of the rights and the possibilities that come from it, are still relevant and useful for those of us that don't care about the institution, but still want those rights, right? Like, I might not care about having a specific kind of traditional marriage, but I still want to be able to fly with my partner like and not be questioned in a specific – I care about our safety, I get about our possibility for travel. And so these sorts of outcomes are not just about the rule itself, but about what the rule can offer. And I think – I mean, I've started to think about rules as almost these sort of directional guardrails right – so they're not so much what the rule can do, but what they open up in the direction of – and how that could then set a path dependency for other things that you can keep pushing for that changes. And I think rules are the bare minimum – and I sort of follow in this like larger tradition of like critical race theorists who have said – well, you can't do away with the entire infrastructure of what you demand, because what you demand is what holds the sort of base structure for building the things that you want to build – And I think that's what rules offer, they offer the skeleton of what you can build from – they're not the whole house. And so thinking through the capacity for rules – and what direction you want them to be – is very different from thinking of them as substantive or substantial equality, which they definitely are not.
Alexis Hieu Truong 29:06
So what your you've been explaining really like speaks around this question of like, what rule... what. what value rules have, whether they, their value is kind of like in their intent or in their outcome. But I was wondering if we can kind of take a step back and like even further and ask, like, does anyone even care about rules like nowadays? Like I say this because the idea of rules as a concept seems intuitively related to something like truth. And well, like even many of our leaders today seem to have not much regard for either, actually. So how do we think about our subject of rules in relation to kind of a post truth society?
Swethaa Ballakrishnen 29:53
It does really make sense. I also think that we are phrasing, you know – does anyone care for rules? – I think the people who don't care for rules are people who have rules. And who are not actually affected by not having rules. You know, if you're in the middle of a genocide, it matters what international human rights convention say about what that possibility is – even if you don't actually think that's what's going to give you a full life, right? So rules matter if you're in the middle of a crisis, where rules can actually hold the fort for what is being done to you. And you're totally right that, you know – the phrasing you had at the end of your question, which is like, you know – leaders seem to not care about rules, they don't, because they have power to not care about rules. It actually doesn't impact them whether the rules matter. So rules get used as tools for legitimacy building, rules get used as ways to sort of reinforce pockets of power that already exists. But for those that don't have them, rules can actually be new modes of contestation. And I think lawyers – this is why critical lawyers still rely on rules as sort of starting points of interventions – because yeah, you can care about a lot of things ethically, morally, culturally, politically – but how that actually gets operationalised into action – one of those many tools is the law. And I think this is why sociolegal... I mean, to go back to the start, right, this is why it matters! It matters that you have a construction of who the law is serving – which is what sort of sociology gives you – and use the law in service of that construction, which is definitely what the law offers.
Alice Bloch 31:31
Hi I'm Alice, producer of Uncommon Sense. And thank you for joining us as we reflect on rules with Swethaa Ballakrishnen . And if you're curious about sociolegal studies, you can head to the sociologicalreview.org, where there's loads to read as ever – including a 2021 magazine piece on the sociolegal issues tied up with the increasingly vibrant digital life of environmental campaigns. Plus a 2019 report from the UK Sociolegal Studies Association Conference, including reflections on a talk about resilience in law students will put it all in our show notes with details of those pieces, and their authors, of course. And meanwhile, as ever, please rate review and follow us on the app you're using to hear this, it helps us to keep bringing more Uncommon Sense to you. Back to Rosie.
Rosie Hancock 32:18
Okay, so Swethaa, here's where we really hone in on yet another seemingly common sense term or idea that fits with today's theme. Last month talking to Nicky Falkof about anxiety, we turned to the idea of reflexivity, which is powerful, both inside and outside academia. And today we're doing a similar thing, looking at a value which will be very familiar to anyone who's done, you know, research methods 101 courses, and that is neutrality. So we're gonna get to that. But first Swethaa, it's pretty obvious, we should mention that assumptions of neutrality are pretty embedded in law – from the idea, from the idea of people being equal before the law, to the idea of justice being blind – you know, but it can these, can this idea be dangerous too?
Swethaa Ballakrishnen 33:07
it's incredibly dangerous. And I think, you know, critical race scholars have been built around the assumption that law is neutral is deeply problematic, law is neutral actually starts from the standpoint of, you know – as we said in the last question – those that actually have the power and can make the rules and made the rules for themselves, right. So part of what's inherent in it is who it doesn't include in its neutrality. And so yeah, law is actually an excellent site for unpacking neutrality. And I think critical sociological analysis does exactly that. It helps us see what parts of law say it's neutral. While it's actually deeply not. And it's a framework that's informed my writing. It's a framework that's informed my teaching. And I definitely think thinking about law as the most accessible version of what non neutral is – while calling itself neutral – is pertinent,
Alexis Hieu Truong 34:02
I guess, similarly, this word neutrality has all sorts of meanings and pressure points – including in journalism, politics, and so on – but like, what does this word typically mean in social sciences, in particular? And like, how does the assumption, maybe, that researchers should be neutral, shape how people go about doing, like their research?
Swethaa Ballakrishnen 34:25
Yeah, so I think there's a methods question that you're asking, but also a substantive question about the field. And I'll answer the latter first, because I think for the the way it comes up in my work is around the idea of merit, right, or equality. So I do a lot of work on studying lawyers and legal education and how we think of good students and, you know, successful students and who belongs and who has satisfaction. And all of these are predicated on grounds of who the ideal student is – and the ideal student is often predicated on ideas of like a neutral logic – and educational institutions are rife with that idea of merit and neutrality, which is: as long as you are good, you will do well. If you pass this, you will do X, right? All of those, all of those benchmarks are seemingly neutral benchmarks, but our structure to keep those that it does not want to include at bay. So substantively, I think f– or at least for the kind of work that I do –merit and equalities, where neutrality hides in plain sight. The sort of logic of it as a method is somewhat related, but also distinctly different, right? – it's what is seen as achievable method? what is generalizable? What kind of data do you use to answer what question – and in that way, neutrality is biassed? Because often, neutrality that is expected is with big data, with data that is replicated in different kinds of contexts. And that entirely excludes the possibility for including voices that might not be replicable, right. And we're using as points of data, reflexivity or possibility that is incredibly created around a specific position –which in my view, is very important data – but data that does not align with what the social sciences will think of as good neutrality, often, because it doesn't sit alongside it's all traditional models of what generalisability is.
Rosie Hancock 36:21
Swethaa, you've written about an encounter with a white, male, older professor, who asked you why you have brought yourself into your work. The inference being I think that you know, doing this somehow undermined the data. Can you tell us about that?
Swethaa Ballakrishnen 36:36
Yeah, I mean, I've written about this in multiple places, because it really was a, was a note to think about my ethical priors and my my sort of methodological priors. And it's worth clarifying that it wasn't just "Why do you do X?" It was also a, your book has such great data, it – you know, it makes this argument so clearly using data – why did you also feel the need to have a self reflexive prologue? So my book sort of starts off with a very personally self reflexive prologue – which was politically and you know, unnecessarily salient to me – and the book itself is based on a long ethnography with a lot of interview data that was coded specifically around disciplinary lines. And so part of the question was a compliment. It wasn't a it wasn't a sort of return, it was a it was a generous compliment to say, your book has so much good data – why did you also feel the need to have the self reflexive start to it? Because that's not what was the base of the data – the person was right, that's not what the book was about. But to me, it was politically necessary, to necessary to hold the data that I had found in context, given my reflexive position. And I think it's important for a range of reasons. I think, if I don't tell people what my priors are, then my work gets read as neutral in a very specific context that I don't want it to be read as, right. So if you, you know, if you don't tell someone your priors, they assume it for you. If you don't tell someone what your position is, that in some ways, I actually think it's less neutral, because it's an invisible mode of data collection and representation, who collects the data and what priors they had and how they thought about the data. In outing yourself in that process, you're actually offering the most neutral way to think about data. It's just not coded as neutrality, because our logics of neutrality are about distance, not closeness.
Rosie Hancock 38:29
So I mean, I guess, in a way, being open about your priors, and you know – not least before someone else does it for you, and does, you know, badly – and your, and your identity is a way of aiding transparency, yeah?
Swethaa Ballakrishnen 38:43
Yeah, just just this idea of like, you can look at me and think, any number of things about me – you don't know, sort of how I identify on the gender binary, perhaps, you don't know, you know, what my class priors are, you might not know that I come from an upper caste, like sort of, you know, English speaking house – or maybe you do know that, but like, you don't realise that those are deep advantages that most people don't out themselves to have. So reading me as a person of colour in an American context is actually not doing the identity justice – because it's both true and untrue – I'm not from this country, the advantages I have are not advantages that translate to this country, perhaps – but they also do translate. And so being open and honest about all the things that advantaged me and all the things that disadvantage me perhaps, are important for the context of any process of neutrality. And I think that's why I call it a flexible category, because it's not like these identities are fixed. They're constantly responding to the environment I'm in, they're responding to the interactions that I'm part of. And I think that's necessary to do that kind of vulnerability in method. And then what I mean by that is essentially just being open and reflexive and constantly reassessing where you're privileged and where you're not when you're actually doing data collection and reflection and analysis – because it In the transparency of what you're actually producing as scholarship.
Alexis Hieu Truong 38:45
And Swethaa, as we head to the end of the show, we always like to grab a tip from our guests on something from culture beyond academia that they could read, maybe watch, to reflect more on today's themes: rules. So is there anything that comes to mind? Like you've been writing about Ted Lasso? I hear... but like, it's a show about an American football coach who ends up in the UK where they they kind of like have altogether different rules, and stuff there so?
Swethaa Ballakrishnen 40:43
Yeah, I, I am writing about "Ted Lasso" – but I'm not, I'm not trying to get from the context of rules at all, I'm writing it because I'm really interested in this idea of enmity, or friendship and the law and how asexual relationships can also bind our possibilities for queer futures and how, you know, the queer movement has tacked itself along, you know – we were just talking about this – There's you know, this answer to do we actually care about outcomes that don't really serve us? And what does that mean about, you know, law in marriage equality. And so that strain of scholarship, I think the the new sort of work that's coming out is on how the focus on the asexual or the focus on other bonds that are not recognised by the law, what does it do for the things that are invisible to these rules that law has? And how do those sorts of bonds hold us? And how can those bonds be useful? And so "Ted Lasso" has been the sort of node for theorising about some of that because – I won't give the goal of the show away – but it doesn't really have a long logic of romantic entanglement across the show. And it's not a, you know, it's not a side show. It's a very mainstream show. It's a show that a lot of people watch. And I love that it doesn't have a single romantic coupling that actually ends the show. And I find that kind of non outcome to be actually very productive in the cultural space – to go back to the original question about how to cultural scripts change the way we think about law – to me that offered hope, because there's a lot of queer writing and rewriting about what it means to do friendship, right. Like, I mean, queer possibility has always been predicated on grief and non outcomes as productive outcome. But that never happens on a white middle class, you know, man from Kansas, going to the UK to teach soccer, like, that's just not a construction for where you would expect what I think of the queer outcome. So it's really interesting to me as a way to consider the possibility that asexuality and enmity can offer for queer legality. And so that's sort of like where my research is headed next. But I do have two pop culture recommendations that are not Ted Lasso, that I'd like to stick on the table, if that's okay?
Rosie Hancock 42:52
Swethaa Ballakrishnen 42:53
Okay. Yeah. So the like, one of the things we've spoken about is how rules construct what we expect and whether they follow it or not. And one of the shows that's been really interesting is a show called "Made in Heaven" – which is on Amazon Prime, which I try not to support Amazon, but this is a good show. Because it's again...
Rosie Hancock 43:07
Such a good show...
Swethaa Ballakrishnen 43:11
... Yeah, but it's an idea of like, it really takes this idea of rules. And it takes this idea of neutrality, and then thinks about well, how do we queer it? How do we rethink it? How does law in action actually perform? Like, you know, how do we... it has, you know, some sort of caste issues that are well debated, and I, you know, asked people to be reflexive about that when they read about it. But I do think, on the whole, the arc of sort of queer possibility, as well as this rule following and rule neutrality is really excellent. And I have enjoyed that as a way to think about, you know, law in action and how that could work. And the last thing I'll put on the table is actually a short – which is available on YouTube – it's it's, it's the short called "Sunday" – that's the name of the short – it's by Arun Fulara, F U L A R E... – and it is this excellent little snippet of how to think about everyday queer life that is visible in plain sight, but also not in an Indian context. I won't give it away. But I just think it's a delicious little snippet if you have 10 minutes.
Rosie Hancock 44:18
Well Swethaa, that's all we have time for today. And I've, I've learned a lot actually from speaking to you. And going back to our chat about accidental feminism – I guess I could say here, both that I've learned the things I've intended to learn, and that we sort of set out to talk about through our scripts – but also a few unintentional, but nonetheless, valuable things along the way as well. So thank you very much for joining us.
Swethaa Ballakrishnen 44:42
Thank you so much for having me.
Alexis Hieu Truong 44:45
And that's it for this series. We'll be back refreshed with episode one of season three in March. Until then, as ever, take a look through our archive, rate and review us in the app you're using to hear this and don't forget the many other offerings available via sociologicalreview.org – including podcasts like Politics after the Pandemic, and our magazine, each edition on a different theme.
Rosie Hancock 45:11
Lots to keep you busy. In other words, we'll be back with you soon for series three. Take care.
Alexis Hieu Truong 45:16
Rosie Hancock 45:16