Theory and Methods in Socio-Legal Research

Theory and Methods in Socio-Legal Research

Treviño, A Javier

Theory and Methods in Socio-Legal Research. Edited by Reza Banakar and Max Travers. Oxford, United Kingdom, and Portland, Oregon: Hart Publishing, 2005. Pp. xvi + 376. $44.00 paper.

This volume constitutes the fourteenth title in the Law and Society Series, published for the Oñati (Spain) Institute for the Sociology of Law. The series, begun in 2000, now boasts nearly 20 titles on diverse legal issues ranging from criminal policy to Luhmann’s legal theory, from family law to the semiotics of law. Like the other volumes in the series, Theory and Methods in Socio-Legal Research consists of a collection of original essays written by some of the top scholars in the area of sociolegal studies. In addition, like the other books, originating as they did in workshops hosted by the institute, this one comprises 16 papers, most of which were first presented at a seminar on research methods held at Oñati in April 2003.

The book’s editors are two of the leading lights in sociolegal studies and, more specifically, in its subfield of research methods. In collaboration with each other as well as in their solo endeavors they have, during the past dozen years or so, published extensively, and impressively, in sociolegal research and theory, and this volume is their latest joint effort. Having as their general aim “to explore how different methods can be used in researching law and legal phenomena, and how methodological issues and debates in sociology are relevant to the study of law” (p. ix), the editors divide the book into six well-organized, if somewhat conceptually corrugated, sections: Method Versus Methodology, Ethnography and Law, Studying Legal Texts, Structural Approaches, Studying Legal Cultures, and SocioLegal Research in the U.K. They provide pithy introductions to each of the sections, but it is in their opening statement on law, sociology, and method (it alone merits the price of the book) that the editors consider the interdisciplinary nature of sociolegal research as well as the challenges of working in a field in which most of its practitioners are academic lawyers, not social scientists, and therefore lack systematic training in both sociological theory and research methods.

The collection contains contributions from sociolegal scholars working and researching in Australia as well as several European countries including Germany, Italy, and Denmark, but with the United Kingdom being the dominant case. Two chapters, however, are of studies done in non-European legal cultures: Botswana and Russia. The contributors, the majority of whom are based in departments of law, represent a wide variety of theoretical traditions. For instance, Ziegert cites the many advantages of systems theory in conducting empirical sociolegal research, from the micro (e.g., courtroom communication) to the macro (e.g., global law). Bano takes a feminist perspective in her ethnographic study of mediation hearings in Shariah Councils, the community bodies that decide family disputes for British Muslims. And Travers advocates employing an ethnomethodological approach in analyzing quality assurance studies conducted in organizations involved with the delivery of legal services such as law courts, prisons, police forces, and law offices.

But this is not only a book about the theoretical approaches used in sociolegal studies, it is also about research methods-and the methods employed in the empirical studies showcased in this volume include questionnaires, semistructured and unstructured interviews, ethnographic fieldwork, and textual analysis. One study that I found particularly intriguing because of innovative technique is Hammerslev’s examination of the legal and social positions of judges in Denmark for the purpose of writing, in Bourdieuian fashion, a collective biography of their social field. Here Hammerslev outlines how reference books such as Who’s Who can be used to design a statistical database for conducting research on the field of judges and determining the forms of capital they possess.

The central theme running through the collection is that there exists an inextricable relationship between the various research methods employed in sociolegal studies and the different theoretical traditions in sociology. As such, the editors are especially keen to examine how the epistemological positions of positivism, interpretivism, and critical realism not only determine how research techniques are conducted and conceptualized, but also how the data obtained are used and interpreted. This and other substantive themes (e.g., assessments of grounded theory and theoretical reflexivity) typically receive some coverage in the better research methods textbooks in sociology but are seldom, if ever, discussed in reference to theorizing and researching in the field of sociolegal studies.

While it is commonplace in edited collections to find unevenness in the quality of the essays included, such is not the case with this particular volume. I found all 16 papers to be of high caliber, clearly written and organized, and this makes for engaging reading. Theory and Methods in Socio-Legal Research will doubtless prove fruitful for use in all courses in sociolegal studies, but particularly in those courses taught in British and American law schools that tend to ignore conceptual and methodological considerations.

Reviewed by A. Javier Trevino, Wheaton College

Copyright Blackwell Publishing Jun 2007

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