designing + (dis)assembling disputes: an ethnography of disputes & lawyers in the construction industry

Sinclair, S. 2016. designing + (dis)assembling disputes: an ethnography of disputes & lawyers in the construction industry. PhD thesis University of Westminster Westminster Law School

Titledesigning + (dis)assembling disputes: an ethnography of disputes & lawyers in the construction industry
TypePhD thesis
AuthorsSinclair, S.

The UK construction industry is notorious for the sheer amount of disputes which are likely to arise on each building and engineering project. Despite numerous
creative attempts at “dispute avoidance” and “dispute resolution”, this industry is still plagued with these costly disputes. Whilst both academic literature and
professional practices have investigated the causes of disputes and the mechanisms for avoidance/resolution of these disputes, neither has studied in any detail the
nature of the construction disputes and why they develop as they do once a construction lawyer is engaged. Accordingly, this research explores the question of what influences the outcome of a construction dispute and to what extent do construction lawyers control or direct this outcome?

The research approach was ethnographic. Fieldwork took place at a leading construction law firm in London over 18 months. The primary focus was participant observation in all of the firm’s activities. In addition, a database was compiled from the firm’s files and archives, thus providing information for quantitative analysis.

The basis of the theoretical framework, and indeed the research method, was the Actor‐Network Theory (ANT). As such, this research viewed a dispute as a set of
associations – an entity which takes form and acquires its attributes as a result of its relations with other entities. This viewpoint is aligned with relational contract theories, which in turn provides a unified platform for exploring the disputes. The research investigated the entities and events which appeared to influence the dispute’s identity, shape and outcome. With regard to a dispute’s trajectory, the research took as its starting point that a dispute follows the transformation of “naming, blaming, claiming…”, as identified by Felstiner, Abel and Sarat in 1980.

The research found that construction disputes generally materialise and develop prior to any one of the parties approaching a lawyer. Once the lawyer is engaged, we see the reverse of the trajectory “naming, blaming, claiming…” this being: “claiming, blaming, naming…” The lawyers’ role is to identify or name (or rename) the dispute in the best possible light for their client in order to achieve the desired outcome – the development of which is akin to the design process. The transformation of a dispute and the reverse trajectory is by no means linear, but rather, iterative and spatial as it requires alliances, dependencies and contingencies to assemble and take the shape it does.

The research concludes that construction disputes are rarely ever completely “resolved” as such. Whilst an independent third party may hand down a judgment, or the parties may reach a settlement agreement, this state is only temporal. Some construction disputes dissipate whist others reach a state of hibernation for a period of time only to pick up momentum and energy some years later. Accordingly, this research suggests that the concept of “dispute resolution” does not exist in the UK construction industry. The ultimate goal should be for parties to reach this ultimate and perpetual state of equilibrium as quickly and as cost effectively as possible: “dispute dissolution”, the slowing down of the dispute’s momentum. Rather than focusing on the design and assemblage of the dispute, the lawyers’ role therein is, or should be, to assist with the “disassembling” of the dispute.

PublisherUniversity of Westminster
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