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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.

    This article builds upon the work of James Boyd White as well as on Shelley’s ‘A defence of Poetry’ (1840) and reports upon an experiment in which students use poetry as a means to understand philosophical texts. The experiment had a double goal: first, I sought to challenge students in reading a philosophical text differently with an aim to better understand the text. The second goal was to challenge students to think about the text differently, more critically and analyse its relevance for the contemporary world. In the end, using imagination, is the claim, contributes to students finding their own ‘voice’.


Bald de Vries
Dr Bald de Vries is lecturer at the Department of Jurisprudence, Constitutional and Administrative Law of the Faculty of Law (JCAL), Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands, u.devries@uu.nl.

    The nexus between religion and law is an important subject of comparative law. This paper, however, finds that the majority of comparative theorists rely on the immanent frame; that legal legitimacy can and should be separated from any objective truth or moral norm. But the fact of the matter is many constitutional systems were founded based on a complicated mixture between the transcendent and immanent frame. Whereas in the immanent frame, human actions are considered self-constituting, in the transcendent frame, human actions were judged in light of their correspondence to higher, divine laws and purposes.
    This article argues that it is not sufficient for comparative theorists to offer a perspective from the immanent frame. Comparative theorists in law and religion should understand at least basic religious doctrines and know how to systematize those doctrines. In other words, comparative theorist of law and religion should work within the transcendent frame. By using a transcendent frame, comparative theorists will be able to excavate the underlying structure of religion, and so they will understand better how theological ideas influence law. Furthermore, this paper will also present a thought experiment in applying the transcendent frame in comparative constitutional studies.


Stefanus Hendrianto
Stefanus Hendrianto is a scholar at Boston College, School of Theology and Ministry. In recent years, he has been a visiting professor at Santa Clara University School of Law (2013-2015) and a guest scholar at the Kellogg Institute for International Studies at the University of Notre Dame (2015-2016). He holds a Ph.D. degree from the School of Law, University of Washington, Seattle and LLM degree from Utrecht University, Netherlands, in addition to his LLB degree from Gadjah Mada University, Indonesia.

    This article examines the main assumptions and theoretical underpinnings of case study method in legal studies. It considers the importance of research design, including the crucial roles of the academic literature review, the research question and the use of rival theories to develop hypotheses and the practice of identifying the observable implications of those hypotheses. It considers the selection of data sources and modes of analysis to allow for valid analytical inferences to be drawn in respect of them. In doing so it considers, in brief, the importance of case study selection and variations such as single or multi case approaches. Finally it provides thoughts about the strengths and weaknesses associated with undertaking socio-legal and comparative legal research via a case study method, addressing frequent stumbling blocks encountered by legal researchers, as well as ways to militate them. It is written with those new to the method in mind.


Lisa Webley

    In this article the Think-Aloud Method, a method used in problem solving research in Psychology, is used in legal research to gather data on how novices, expert beginners and experts read, structure and analyse legal decisions. In the Dutch legal system decisions by judges are a major source of law. So it is important that law students learn to read, structure and analyse legal decisions. However, reading and understanding a decision does not go without saying, it has to be learned. The data we gather using the Think-Aloud Method are used to improve instruction to support the effective and efficient learning of comprehending legal decisions. We describe the Think-Aloud Method, our experimental design and our approach for analysing the protocols.


Dr. Antoinette Muntjewerff
Dr. A. Muntjewerff is Assistant Professor of Legal Theory at the Faculty of Law at the University of Amsterdam. She has a Masters in Social Science, a Masters in Law, and a PhD in Computer Science & Law; she studied Computer Science (more specifically Artificial Intelligence).

    Vrijwel alle rechtenstudenten krijgen vroeg of laat in hun studie de opdracht om eens een kijkje te nemen bij de rechtbank. Er is echter niet of nauwelijks literatuur over hoe ze dat zouden kunnen aanpakken. Dit artikel beoogt in die leemte te voorzien. Het doel is om studenten methodologische bagage mee te geven, waarmee een observatieopdracht op een hoger niveau kan worden getild. Promovendi of andere onderzoekers die observatieonderzoek willen verrichten, kunnen daar ook hun voordeel mee doen.


Nienke Doornbos
Met dank aan Nina Holvast, Antoinette Muntjewerff en Rob Schwitters voor hun suggesties ter verbetering van een eerdere versie van dit artikel.
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