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Access_open Teaching Socio-Legal Research Methodology: Participant Observation. Special Issue on Active Learning and Teaching in Legal Education

Journal Law and Method, January 2019
Keywords Participant observation, sociolegal research, methodology, teaching
Authors Marc A. Simon Thomas
AbstractAuthor's information

    The basics of how to conduct participant observation are not taught in law schools. This is striking because this methodology has become a common feature of qualitative research and could be very useful in sociolegal research. For those interested in studying ‘law in practice’ instead of ‘law in the books’, qualitative research methods like participant observation are inevitable. However, participant observation is, at best, secondary in the literature on qualitative research in the sociolegal discipline, while there is no guidance on how to conduct this technique whatsoever.Therefore, this article is written with two audiences in mind: It should serve as a useful reference and guide for those who teach qualitative research methods in legal education and who are looking to enhance their knowledge and skills concerning participant observation; it is also meant to serve as a basic primer for the beginning sociolegal researcher who is about to become a participating observer for the first time.


Marc A. Simon Thomas
Utrecht University, School of Law, Institute of Jurisprudence, Constitutional and Administrative Law, Legal Theory; m.a.simonthomas@uu.nl.

    Quantitative empirical research into legal decisions must be conducted using statistical tools that are appropriate for the data involved. Court decisions are one example of a domain where the data is intrinsically hierarchical (i.e., multilevel), since decisions are made on individual cases by decision-makers in courts located across geographical (or jurisdictional) areas. Past research into court decisions has often either neglected higher level variables or incorrectly used single-level statistical models to analyze multilevel data. The lack of a clear understanding about when and why multilevel statistical models are required may have contributed to this situation. In this paper, we identify the problems of estimating single-level models on hierarchically structured data, and consider the advantages of conducting multilevel analyses under these circumstances. We use the example of criminal sentencing research to illustrate the arguments for the use of multilevel models and against a single-level approach. We also highlight some issues to be addressed in future sentencing studies.


Mandeep Dhami

Ian Keith Belton
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