Research Ideas

Looking for a new research topic? Here are some ideas.

First, a few areas where scholars are doing a lot of work:

  • marriage and the personal law system
  • many areas of criminal law, like the law of dacoity or thuggee and rape
  • the transition from colonialism to independence
  • states of emergency and periods of martial law in South Asian history

Here are areas ripe for future research:

  • Mughal and early modern legal history, especially in areas that may complicate claims about colonialism (e.g. thuggee, caste, communalism)
  • property and law
  • legal consciousness: how did people decide to go to court? how did they decide they had a legal problem, and not a social one? (building upon the work of Susan S. Silbey)
  • the social reception of legal outcomes (including through social movements)
  • understandings and applications of law by government agencies
  • law and science, medicine or technology, especially focusing upon the legal aspects of a new technology or field
  • the intersection between legal and environmental history [for inspiration, see Debjani Bhattacharyya, Empire and Ecology in the Bengal Delta: The Making of Calcutta]
  • history of the law book [for ideas, see Angela Fernandez and Markus D. Dubber’s edited volume, Law Books in Action: Essays on the Anglo-American Legal Treatise]
  • law, cities and urban space, including architecture, city planning and regulation
  • law and material culture (including legal dress and furniture), tracing symbols and representations of law [for inspiration, see Rahela Khorakiwala, From the Colonial to the Contemporary: Images, Iconography, Memories, and Performances of Law in India’s High Courts]
  • interactions between state law and customary norms
  • law and the military [for ideas, see ch. on military panchayats in James Jaffe, Ironies of Colonial Governance: Law, Custom and Justice in Colonial India]
  • local courts
  • lower ranks of the legal profession
  • oral legal history (see my blogpost here for ideas)
  • digital legal history (see the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University for inspiration)
  • women in the legal profession (search these listings for South Asian women at the Inns of Court, 1861-1947, plus see this and this)
  • legal history using primary sources in South Asian languages other than English
  • legal history of parts of South Asia other than India, including Bhutan, Nepal, Tibet, Myanmar (Burma), Sri Lanka (Ceylon) the Maldives and post-colonial Pakistan or Bangladesh
  • transnational or diasporic legal histories of South Asia, examining populations like South Asians in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central Asia, East Africa, or North America or indentured laborers in the Caribbean, Mauritius and Fiji; including legal instruments that facilitated the circulation of people and assets across territory [For inspiration, see Renisa Mawani, Across Oceans of Law: The Komegata Maru and Jurisdiction in the Time of Empire]

Equally, you could:

  • pick a social problem or common social scenario and follow the forms it took through law (on the model of Hendrik Hartog’s Someday all this will be yours: a history of inheritance and old age)
  • pick a legal phenomenon or device (especially one new to the time or place) and follow it both legally and socio-culturally across a region or period
  • pick a commodity (e.g. opium, salt, cotton, coal, gold) and follow its interactions with law and society across time or space

[updated on 17 Feb. 2020]