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October 25, 2006

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Elizabeth Mertz

Laura Beth, you make some really good points here and in the last post about the way that qualitative research forms a vital part of the overall empirical research picture. Often, it seems that getting down on the ground to see how patterns work can help us to understand the mechanisms that generate the patterns we see through larger-scale quantitative research. Of course, as you pointed out in your Monday post, qualitative empirical research also makes contributions in its own right to our understanding of law. While some kinds of qualitative research rely on samples of the kind Albiston and Fleury-Steiner use, others like Heimer and Staffen utilize ethnographic methods that are not reliant on samples. As you pointed out, well-done ethnographic fieldwork is a very taxing and demanding form of empirical research. There are standards here as well, so that just visiting an institutional setting briefly and talking with a skewed subset of the people there would not cut it. When I sit on doctoral committees for anthropology and sociology graduate students, it is standard to require lengthy fieldwork, systematic fieldnotes, careful consideration of the full social or institutional structure involved, and taking a number of methodological precautions to preclude presuppositions or bias from limiting the scope of students' participant observation. (In anthropology, it is common to expect a year or more of fieldwork and also to require linguistic proficiency in one's field language.) Anthropologists also use methods such as door-to-door census work in our communities, systematic linguistic proficiency assessments, and taping of interviews -- as well as of public events and other interactions.
So, of course, from this perspective, it's easy to see why those of us who do this work wouldn't agree that it's a feature of almost all legal research! I look forward to hearing more on this and other topics as the week progresses. Thanks for the interesting posts!

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