Session I: Introduction- Getting Started with Qualitative Research

Elizabeth Mertz (ABF, Wisconsin Law/Anthropology & Law)

Leslie Levin (University of Connecticut Law/Law), Lynn Mather (SUNY Buffalo Law/Political Science)

Program: A key step in using or performing empirical studies is identifying what sorts of claims can be made from different kinds of research. Every type of empirical method has limitations, so again it is crucial to avoid making overly broad claims from any given type of study.

We begin by discussing the different types of legal problems that can be investigated empirically. Since normative questions generally lie outside of empirical research (although we believe that normative questions often rest at least partially on empirical assumptions), we will discuss when and how it’s useful for law professors to turn to the social sciences. We then examine how to connect the legal problems that can be studied empirically with particular methods and theories from social science. Whether you want to do your own study or simply draw on empirical research, you will face a common set of initial issues. Arguably the most important threshold issue is how to match research methods to the questions you want to ask. The most carefully performed empirical research can be useless or even misleading if we attempt to draw on it to answer questions it doesn’t really correctly address. Given the full range of qualitative and quantitative methods available to researchers, how do we identify an appropriate method for answering any given particular research question? Under what circumstances should we draw on a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods for studying the law as it works in action? We will use examples of actual studies to demonstrate how socio-legal researchers fit the methods they use to the questions they are asking. We will also examine the role of theory in empirical research, highlighting some differences between legal theories and social science theories.

Having covered the issue of “fit,” the session then goes into more depth in describing a variety of empirical research methods. (As a separate session is available for those interested exclusively in statistical analysis, our opening session focuses more on qualitative research, although we will also provide overviews of the types of mixed-method and experimental research that will be discussed in more detail on the second day of this Workshop). In this first session, we will compare approaches in terms of their assumptions, objectives, types of data collected, and use of theory. Particular attention will be given to: interview techniques; focus groups; participant observation; language analysis; historical analysis; content analysis; and combining methods (including quantitative). To illustrate some of these methods, Leslie and Lynn will discuss various studies of lawyers’ ethical decision-making in order to show the contribution that each method can provide.

At the conclusion of the session, we will distribute index cards so that the audience can write down specific questions that they would like to see addressed on the following day.