Supporting roles in comparative legal history

by: in Law

Law is a social science that is subject to mutation. Scholars devote efforts to reconstruct the events and the activities of actors behind those changes. These efforts are many times materialized in comparative legal historical studies that trigger new trends and lines of research. These efforts further assist in attaining a legal and cultural repository for future studies, since they also develop valuable contexts.

Law is rarely shaped after one single occurrence, since multiple actors and events can trigger different mutations. Looking at different actors and events proves that cross-pollination occurred, occurs, and will hopefully continue occurring in the future. There is risk in looking only at leading actors and events, since supporting roles might be neglected. There is merit in the study of actors and events that at simple sight might seem to be of minor importance: there is merit in studying supporting actors and events. It is possible to think of people that act in the backstage, people who sometimes are not easily visible, such as translators, secretaries, or research assistants. An entire team could even be deemed a supporting actor, when only the leader takes credit. The same applies to non-central events. Some events might seem minor, but may be ultimately foundational or concluding events, with the potential of pointing to a shift in paradigm. Many times a dissenting opinion in a case or a legislative draft may fit in this supporting role. Some roles are deemed supporting only because they are always associated to a leading role. Researchers should challenge that perception!

Supporting roles help to understand the circulation of legal ideas. Leading and supporting roles, both, provide a fertile ground to analyse the development of legal ideas and narratives. Comparative legal history can benefit from looking at how a supporting actor or event interacts with a leading role. That broader perspective may help to raise new research questions and to explore new paths. Supporting and leading roles may interact, and that dialogue is likewise enriching. A catalogue of supporting and leading actors and events must be explored when researching a specific topic within a comparative legal historical project. A look into these new roles may assist in identifying networks, webs, or paradigmatic shifts. It may reflect unity or a lack of it. It can also help to understand better the different legal and cultural traditions, across time and space.

A look into supporting actors or events can likewise help to understand better the development of a specific discipline or field of study. Here, the development of comparative legal history during the early 20th century offers an illustration. John H. Wigmore (1863-1943) is considered by many as a leading actor in the development of comparative legal history. Based in the US, that scholar built bridges with other systems and jurisdictions, at a global level. Albert Kocourek (1875-1952) tends to be considered a supporting actor in that development of comparative legal history, many times overshadowed by the figure of Wigmore. It is necessary to stress that a significant part of the advancement in that discipline came from the collaboration of Wigmore and Kocourek, and not from their individual efforts, even when Wigmore alone was often under the spotlight. Much could be learned from further looking at Kocourek and at his interaction with Wigmore and other scholars.

Supporting roles can help identify the traits in the circulation of legal ideas.  These roles can also help move from specific to general, broadening the scope of claims. Collective understanding can be attained by looking at a number of supporting roles that ultimately explain a leading change. A look into these roles helps comparative legal historians to broaden their field of study, their context, often filling gaps that hinder a full understanding. In brief, researchers must expand their view. Researchers should explore beyond mainstream actors and events. Working on mainstream can result in the overlooking of many “hidden” actors and events. Some stories cannot be told without acknowledging the presence and role of certain supporting actors and events: some supporting roles must be explored in order to grasp the complete view! Comparative legal history can only benefit from looking at those supporting roles. After all, narratives and uncontested dogmas may be ultimately challenged when new actors and events are explored.

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  • A. Parise

    Agustín Parise (Buenos Aires, Argentina) is Associate Professor of Law and Chair of the Faculty Council at the Faculty of Law of Maastricht University. He received his degrees of LL.B. (abogado) and LL.D. (doctor en derecho) at Universidad de Buenos Aires (Argentina), where he was Lecturer in Legal History during 2001-2005. He received his degree of LL.M.

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