Qualitative Empirical Legal Research

A big welcome to the blogosphere for the new Empirical Legal Research Blog. I applaud the empirical move because I think this sort of research adds substantial value to the understanding of how law functions both internally and within society. As I’ve suggested in a comment over there, however, I do think that many people in the legal academy have come to conflate the idea of empirical work with quantitative work. As people in coordinate social science disciplines well know (because they, unlike most vanilla JD’s, have had formal methodological training), the concept of empirical work includes both quantitative and qualitative work. This is not to say that the quantitative and qualitative camps are always so cozy. Number crunchers sometimes think qualitative work is too squishy or subjective. The qualitative folks sometimes think that the use of numbers creates a false aura of objectivity. But many serious empirical scholars – particularly those trained in recent years – understand that both types of work are necessary to further the grand project of increasing human knowledge. I hope the folks over the new blog take qualitative work seriously. I suspect that in the next few years we’ll see qualitative researchers gain a stronger footing within the legal academy. At least I hope so.

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5 Responses

  1. uneducated student says:

    What is qualitative empirical work?

  2. Matt says:

    In disciplines like Sociology, at least, qualitiative work usually means something like case studies, in-depth interviews with a fairly limited number of subjects, and things like that. _Tally’s Corner_ by Elliot Liebow is a classic example.

  3. Frank says:

    Thank you for this great post! I was just reading C. Wright Mills’s essay Abstracted Empiricism and thinking along the same lines.

    I’m thinking about writing a piece called Law as/and Interpretive Social Science, which would aim not only to recognize the important place of qualitative research in law, but also to question our habitual assumption that value-neutrality is the hallmark of useful social science. It strikes me that people like Ricoeur, Geertz, Bellah, etc. have very important things to say to law that are lost in the shuffle of more numbers-based work. But I’ve got to re-read Eskridge’s Gadamer/Statutory Interpretation before going further, though.

    For a very nice brief against one current quantification craze, see


    Finally, if you like philosophy of social science, http://www.politicaltheory.info has links to a great set of pieces on unification in social natural sciences in its right column.

  4. ur_land says:

    Frank: I’m not sure how that economist article that you cite argues against the “current quantification craze.” If anything, I read it to be arguing that economists need to do more and better quantifying of national economic well-being. This isn’t a qual/quant issue–this is a measurment issue. Social scientists would call is an issue of construct validity–whether your variable (GDP) adequately measuring your construct (national economic well being.

  5. Natasha Vita-More says:

    The question has not been answered.