Earlier this week, Howard Gillman wrote a terrific post that reminded us that within the broader academy, "empirical" denotes a lot more than just quantitative analysis. Howard's comments harkened me back to earlier posts by law professor bloggers who asked what traction they could get from qualitative work. (For example, Lior Strahilevitz on "Big Tent" Empiricism; Dan Filler on Qualitative Empirical Legal Research; and Victor Fleischer on Case Studies.)
In turn, I ran across this short essay by economist Susan Helper, which is directly on point: "Economists and Field Research: 'You Can Learn a Lot Just by Watching," [JSTOR] 90 Am. Econ. Rev. 228 (2000). [The title quotes the inimitable Yogi Berra.] Helper's first few paragraphs put things into perspective:
Modern economics began with Adam Smith's visit to a pin factory, which helped him explain how the division of labor worked. However, not many economists today do much fieldwork, which involves interviews with economic actors and visits to places they live and work. ...
Economists today typically do their research using econometrics and mathematical modeling. These techniquess have many strengths but share the weakness of distance from individual economic actors. In contrasts, field research allows direct contact with them, yield several advantages.
1. Researchers Can Ask People Directly About Their Objectives and Constraints. ... [examples]
2. Fieldwork Allows Exploration of Areas with Little Preexisting Data or Theory. ... [examples]
3. Fieldwork Facilitates Use of the Right Data [by discovering otherwise "unobserved" environmental differences]. ... [examples]
4. Fieldwork Provides Vivid Images That Promote Intuition. ... [examples]
The rest of the essay argues that standard critiques of qualitative research (i.e., it's not objective, amenable to replication, or generalizable) can be addressed through better methods. [Disclosure: as an undergraduate, I worked as an RA for Helper doing, among other things, field research in the automotive industry.]
A few years ago, Sue Helper told me about a conversation she had with Ronald Coase. In a nutshell, Coase claimed that the neglected takeaway from this famous 1960 article was that economists should be doing qualitative research of companies and institutions in order to better understand transaction costs, since they exist in almost all contexts and often produce less-than-optimal outcomes. That anecdote has stuck with me for a long time.
This weekend I am doing my own field research for my Law Firms class by attending the Indiana State Bar Association Solo & Small Firm Conference. (Note, if the IRB people ask, I am getting CLE credit; I am also an ISBA program organizer.)