Continuing on my theme of “qualitative is empirical too” I want to highlight an important study about law and ordinary citizens – in this case when they are called on to be jurors in capital cases.
Ben Fleury-Steiner’s, Jurors’ Stories of Death comes out of the famous Capital Jury Project led by William Bowers. We have known since the famous Baldus study that there is racial bias in the imposition in the death penalty in the United States.
The CJP is an ambitious qualitative and quantitative study which analyzes jurors decision making at every phase of the capital sentencing project. In 14 states, the CJP chose 20 – 30 capital trials, selected 4 jurors from each jury and conducted extensive interviews with these 1,201 capital jurors from 354 trials. The quantitative findings are really interesting -- one example I particularly like demonstrates jurors’ systematic misunderstanding of what will happen to the defendants if they are not executed. But how do we explain the racial bias?
Ben Fleury-Steiner does it excellently with qualitative research. Based on the larger and systematically drawn sample, Fleury-Steiner’s qualitative interviews are drawn from a rigorously-drawn sample (one of the ways to evaluate qualitative research is on the quality of the sample – his is excellent because it is across state, the trials were randomly selected within the period, and he talked to multiple people of different races from the SAME juries to hear what happened in the jury room). The shocking thing is how honestly jurors spoke of the role of race in determining death sentences. Consider just 2 representative quotes from one of Fleury-Steiner's article:
“I saw the defendant as a very typical product of the lower, socioeconomic, black group who grew up with no values, no ideals, no authority, no morals, no leadership . . . and that was one of the problems we had . . . he wasn’t a white kid.” (page 557, white juror, black defendant sentenced to death).
After telling Fleury-Steiner that anyone who was born in the South but does not consider themselves racist is a liar, a 62 year old white Southerner who had just sentenced an African-American man to death said, “you know if they’d been white people, I would’ve had a different attitude” (page 566).
Seeing a table that summarizes juror misunderstandings it interesting; reading the actual words of jurors who participated in death decisions (which we know are racially skewed) saying these blatantly racist statements is powerful in a way that cannot be overstated. It speaks to people who are not convinced by or do not understand the statistics, but more than that, it demonstrates the mechanisms through which race becomes salient in the jury room which tells us something in addition to the very important facts we know about outcomes.
The methodological lessons for qualitative research are about drawing the sample and the strength of a smaller sample drawn from and embedded in a larger, well-drawn sample. The analysis of the qualitative data is done well according to principles you can read about in these great books:
Analyzing Social Settings: A Guide to Qualitative Observation and Analysis (Lofland and Lofland)