New Legal Realism
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2014 NLR Conference, University of California, Irvine
The New Legal Realism (NLR) Project's goal is to develop rigorous, genuinely interdisciplinary approaches to the empirical study of law. Initially sponsored by the American Bar Foundation and the Institute for Legal Studies at the University of Wisconsin Law School, scholars from many institutions have joined in NLR events and conversations.
NLR scholarship has been featured in panels held at the annual meetings of the American Association of Law Schools and the Law & Society Association. NLR scholars have formed a Collaborative Research Network (CRN) titled “Realist and Empirical Legal Methods” under the aegis of the Law & Society Association, which sponsors panels at their annual meetings. Many of these panels have centered on developing rigorous empirical legal research methods.
In recent years, legal academics have shown renewed interest in social science. However, to date there has been no organized paradigm within the legal academy for translating and integrating diverse social science disciplines and methodologies. NLR scholarship pays systematic attention to this process of translation and integration. Like the "old" legal realists, we seek to bring the best of current social science and legal scholarship to bear on important policy issues of our day - but with the benefit of several generations of new knowledge.
Translating Social Science and Law
Too often, scholars and policymakers have assumed that we can simply pick up the findings of social science and use them in legal settings. This assumption of transparency does not take account of the vast differences that characterize diverse disciplines. These differences exist even among the social sciences themselves. Imagine then the problems that arise when translating social science into legal terms! A number of disciplines have devoted systematic attention to the issues involved in translating across differences of this kind. The NLR Project draws on existing research about the process of interdisciplinary translation. We hope to formulate a more rigorous and informed framework for the interdisciplinary study of law. This will have implications not only for scholarly debates, but also for the use of social science in policy arenas and in legal education.
Combining Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches
Every social science method has its advantages and disadvantages. To achieve a better understanding of one aspect of human experience, each method sacrifices precision regarding other aspects. For example, quantitative methods permit us to generalize about findings, but at the price of detailed contextual analyses. The most qualitatively oriented methods, such as participant observation, provide more thorough information about the actual social contexts in which law operates. However, this kind of research requires us to focus in detail on particular settings, leaving questions about how to generalize the findings from one setting to other places. Combining diverse social science methods and perspectives permits us to provide a more complete understanding of the dilemmas facing law. NLR is working to develop just such an integrative interdisciplinary approach.
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