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29 September 2006


Elizabeth Mertz

A question raised by this method of ranking law schools is one that we discussed when a number of us (ironically, from the ABF as well as Wisconsin) were guest blogging earlier this year. It so clearly privileges statistics over all manner of other empirical research, and arguably without any attempt to assess real engagement with social science methods at a profound level. Because I share the sentiments expressed by both Bob Nelson and Michael Heise in posts during that week -- that good empirical work selects methods based on their appropriateness to the questions asked -- I would prefer a method of assessment that actually looks at the quality of the empirical research generated, defining "empirical" to include the full range of valid empirical research. (And, as we know, that gets you into all kinds of methodological problems. But otherwise, I remain highly skeptical that we are measuring anything worthwhile here.)

A second doubt that I have -- one hinted at by the first comment to this post -- is the merit of assessing a law school's commitment to social science based on the number of joint JD-PhD's on its faculty. Note that this measure leaves out scholars like Marc Galanter and Stewart Macaulay (just to mention a couple of Wisconsin faculty), law faculty who were pioneers in introducing empirical methods to law schools. In fact, a school that just recently hired a bunch of PhD's, without altering much of its core law school culture, would do better under this approach than a law school which had actually integrated empirical research to the point where it was a common part of the faculty's research program, regardless of educational background. (And I speak as a joint JD-PhD myself.)

As an anthropologist, I find myself reinforced in a core tenet of my discipline -- that counting things without performing the hard work of looking at them in depth, on the ground -- can obscure as much as it reveals.

I of course mean no disrespect here for Tracey; I respect her as a researcher and fellow social scientist in the legal academy.


The irony of these rankings is that one of the reasons Northwestern may feel the need to have a number of PhD's on site is because the Law School is so far removed from the main campus and the other academic departments. In law schools on main campuses, a political theory talk in a law school can attract people from the political science department, for instance, although it is reasonable to assume this could happen more if there are cross-appointments etc. Northwestern is aided by the presence of the American Bar Foundation to be sure. Nevertheless, it does beg the question of whether a non-main campus Law school that accumulates primarily PhDs is really just a poor imitation of an actual university rather than a good example of an empirically-minded law school.

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