In contrast to rush-hour traffic in Chicago, the intersection of empirical research in law and political science remains pretty empty. Deep, institutional, problems remain that provide major obstacle to change. Let me explain.
Writing six years ago, I noted that legal academics were blissfully ignorant of social science literature on courts. I argued that this was a function of their training, their professional culture, and the insulation of intellectual life in the legal academy.
I agree with Frank Cross that the situation has improved . That is, there are now small numbers of legal academics who are trained in the social sciences and who are competent users of social scientific methods. As a caveat, economics needs to be put to the side. For several decades there has been a cadre of J.D./Ph.D.’s in economics who have brought the tools of their training to the study of the law. But the number of legal academics with training in other social science disciplines remains tiny. I find it telling that I personally know most of the contributors to this Empirical Legal Studies blog and had the pleasure of teaching most of its founders and some of its most prolific contributors. That may be touching but it doesn’t say much for the depth of social science research in the legal academy. The Marines may be looking for a “few good men” but to mesh the two fields requires substantially more than that.
Frank suggests that legal academics are “much better attuned to political science research than they were...” While something is better than nothing, and it would be very hard for legal academics not to be better attuned, my impression is that little has changed. Hiring a single faculty member won’t do the trick. The culture of scholarly inquiry needs to be changed. It would be interesting to think of ways this could be measured. Simply asking legal academics if they read social science literature on courts doesn’t probe deeply enough. Perhaps students of culture who read this blog have some ideas.
Frank asks if the disciplines should differ. My answer is an unqualified yes. To the extent that legal academics are trained (and that may be a topic for another forum), they are trained to do doctrinal analysis. Social scientists are not trained to do that. The problem emerges when legal academics take on social science questions without the background, training, or knowledge to think about them or study them in productive ways. The default position is simply to assert “legal truths” as the legal literature has done for decades. And if these “truths” have no empirical support and indeed are contradicted by decades of social science research, no worries because most readers won’t be aware of this.
Frank also asks why political scientists are so insightful, although he chooses different language to ask the question. As I suggested back in 2000, part of it, no doubt, has to do with envy for the high salaries and other perks that come with being a Professor of Law rather than a Professor in the Social Sciences. But I like to think that most of it comes from legal scholarship that ignores relevant social science work. It is one thing to have work examined, discussed, and criticized but it is quite another to research and write without any knowledge of major fields of work.
This leaves the great Leninist question, what is to be done? There are a variety of steps that can and are be taking. This blog is one forum where social scientists and legal academics interested in social science can share work. The initial Conference on Empirical Legal Studies meeting in Austin, Texas later this month is also a good step. The popular press may play a role as well. In the last year or two outlets such as the New York Times and National Public Radio have begun to interview social scientists who study courts when looking for insight about courts. In particular, the work of Lee Epstein (now at Northwestern Law School!) and Jeff Segal and Harold Spaeth has been presented in the Times. If the press comes to realize that social scientists can help its audience better understand courts, legal academics may see merit in what social scientists have to say.
Ultimately, however, I remain pessimistic because of the institutional structure of the legal academy. Within most universities law schools are a world unto themselves. They are often physically removed from the main campus. Too few legal academics interact in intellectually vibrant ways with colleagues in the social sciences. While I trust the days are gone when I was told at the University of Michigan Law School that I was at a first-rate law school surrounded by a second-rate state university that I ought to avoid, there is still far too little on-going interaction. This is perhaps because there are no incentives to do so. As long as law reviews are student-edited and not peer-reviewed, and as long as the route to tenure and promotion is through law review publications, the incentives to confront and master social science scholarship remain low. With very few exceptions legal academics publish all their work in law reviews. In a quick review of the contributors to Law & Society Review over the last decade and a half, for example, I found almost no contributors who were trained solely as lawyers. Those few scholars trained in law whose work was published were almost always holders of doctorates in social science fields. In sum, I don’t think social science research will be taken seriously in the legal academy until the structure of the legal academy is changed.