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Combining Methods for a New Synthesis in Law and Empirical Research

May 2016

Featured in The New Legal Realism: Translating Law-and-Society for Today’s Legal Practice (Cambridge University Press) 

An unfortunate by-product of battles over prestige within law schools has been the frequent attempt to claim one particular method or field as the one and only source of empirical wisdom about law. This is particularly regrettable given that achieving a top-notch use of social science for understanding the workings of law at a practical level is (1) badly needed and (2) very difficult to achieve. Rather than wasting energy on turf battles, we urge, legal scholars should be turning their attentions to the still-neglected task of forging a truly interdisciplinary synthesis of methods and theories that would best serve the purposes of lawyers and jurists who need accurate information about law and society “on the ground.”

In this chapter, we add to a growing literature on why such a synthesis would be timely and helpful. In our view, the U.S. legal academy is well positioned to help the field of law in developing a unique interdisciplinary approach – if it is willing to work collaboratively with other parts of the academy and to move forward the project begun many decades ago by the original legal realists. Indeed, we argue, this conversation is already well underway, albeit under the radar of many traditional outlets for legal knowledge (at least in the United States, which is the arena with which we are most familiar). This is an opportunity to learn from a number of different but often-marginalized voices that have a lot to contribute, and from many generations of researchers from across the social sciences. At the same time, those social science researchers have often failed to consider the translation that is necessary if their findings are to be put to the best use in policy and “real-world” legal situations. And legal academics and practitioners are poised to provide guidance, if a cooperative ongoing discussion could be achieved.

Elizabeth Mertz edited this edition with Stewart Macaulay and Thomas W. Mitchell