by Simon Halliday and Patrick Schmidt (eds). Cambridge, UK and New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 304 pp. Cloth. $85.00/£55.00. ISBN: 9780521895910. Paperback $32.99/£19.99. ISBN: 9780521720427. eBook format. $26.00. ISBN: 9780511537271.

Reviewed by Mark Kessler, Department of History and Government, Texas Woman’s University. Email: MKessler [at]


In this useful and creative book, Simon Halliday and Patrick Schmidt present edited transcripts of oral histories conducted with twenty-eight prominent socio-legal scholars about the methods they employed in conducting twenty-one major research projects. Chapters focus on the joys, dilemmas, and methodological challenges experienced in research projects producing such well regarded monographs as Robert Kagan’s REGULATORY JUSTICE, Malcolm Feeley’s THE PROCESS IS THE PUNISHMENT, Lawrence Friedman’s THE ROOTS OF JUSTICE, John Heinz and Edward Laumann’s CHICAGO LAWYERS, Alan Paterson’s THE LAW LORDS, Keith Hawkins’ ENVIRONMENT AND ENFORCEMENT, John Conley and William O’Barr’s RULES VERSUS RELATIONSHIPS, Sally Engel Merry’s GETTING JUSTICE AND GETTING EVEN, Tom Tyler’s WHY PEOPLE OBEY THE LAW, Gerald Rosenberg’s THE HOLLOW HOPE, Michael McCann’s RIGHTS AT WORK, Austin Sarat and William Felstiner’s DIVORCE LAWYERS AND THEIR CLIENTS, Yves Dezalay and Bryant Garth’s DEALING IN VIRTUE, Patricia Ewick and Susan Silbey’s THE COMMON PLACE OF LAW, Hazel Genn’s PATHS TO JUSTICE, John Braithwaite and Peter Drahos’ GLOBAL BUSINESS REGULATION, and John Hagan’s JUSTICE IN THE BALKINS. Other chapters explore methodological issues in research described in frequently cited articles in law and society –Stewart Macaulay’s “Non-Contractual Relations in Business,” David Engel’s “The Oven Bird’s Song,” and Doreen McBarnet’s “Whiter than White Collar Crime.” These chapters are placed between an introductory essay, “Beyond Methods – Law and Society in Action,” written by the book’s editors, and a conclusion written by Herbert Kritzer, “Research is a Messy Business – An Archeology of the Craft of Sociolegal Research.”

In their introductory essay, the editors suggest that a primary goal of this book is to create “a useful resource for junior researchers of various intellectual interests and methodological approaches” (p.8). Among other things, they hope that the interviews, conducted with scholars who describe important research projects from the very beginning of the law and society movement to the present, demonstrate that “uncertainty and ambiguity are not products of a particular age of a field, but are ever present.” Further, the editors write that they “hope that these interviews will help lessen the anxieties that attend this condition” (p.13). In pursuing these modest goals, the volume [*815] surely succeeds. Halliday and Schmidt place the interviews within the well-known framework of legal realism, comparing and contrasting “law on the books” with “law in action.” They write that “[j]ust as early sociolegal scholars exposed the gap between law in the books and law and action, so we might, as a scholarly community, consider the gap that inevitably exists between research methods and the realities of research” (p.2). In applying this framework, the editors highlight aspects of the interview transcripts that illuminate the fact that research projects – research in action – do not always follow the scripts we learn in methods textbooks – research on the books. Rather, the stories told in this volume about well known and respected research projects show “what it feels like to be out in the field,” the “social realities of conducting research,” providing “a window into the lived reality of research,” a reality suggesting the “imperfect path of the research process” (pp.1-2). Scholars at various stages of their career and with varying levels of research experience learn, or perhaps relearn, important lessons of doing research, especially field research, that include the reality that ambiguity, difficulty, uncertainty, messiness, and doubt are the norm in major research projects, especially those charting new directions. Readers learn to expect the unexpected, look for serendipitous opportunities, realize that completed research projects may only scratch at the surface of the topic, and that many scholars experience a certain level of disappointment with the depth of what they learn. Interviews in this collection show that scholars producing important work may continue to feel, even after years since publication, a sense that their projects were not completed. Malcolm Feeley, for example, felt that his research on misdemeanor courts could have benefitted from more interviews with more participants in different roles. These types of lessons, Halliday and Schmidt write convincingly, suggest that “research methods need to be demystified and understood as social practices” (p.4).

Interviews throughout the book are beautifully crafted. The questions are excellent, helping the scholars to reflect thoughtfully on their projects, often from the initial idea to their conclusion. The narratives provided by the researchers are often warm, extremely engaging, very human, revealing, and sometimes touching. This, I believe, is a tribute to the interviewers as well as to the thoughtfulness of self-reflective interview subjects with a striking ability to see the significance of their methodological choices. Interviews communicate quite clearly important characteristics of successful scholars, such as great excitement about the research enterprise, enthusiasm in the search for truths, humility regarding the tasks of research and their own accomplishments, and a genuine love of learning. Along with significant insights about the research process generally, such as Tom Tyler’s suggestion that “the theoretical framework is what really matters in a project” (p.143), readers will benefit from excellent suggestions and advice anchored in concrete projects. David Engel, for example, suggests that scholars seeking to learn about typical social processes in places like “Sander County,” the subject of his research, interview key figures such as beauticians, bartenders, and funeral parlor operators, who occupy significant [*816] roles in the community that may not appear to be central when the researcher first appears on the scene. Several scholars offer important practical suggestions, such as to take notes on interviews shortly after conducting them, and offer advice on the intricacies of site selection, gaining access to interview subjects, and issues of access, trust, and interviewing across lines of racial, ethnic, and class difference.

Interview transcripts also produce interesting personal anecdotes. For example, Malcolm Feeley initially planned to title his study of misdemeanor courts “Substantive Justice and the Adjudicative Ideal.” One day as he struggled to describe the significance of his findings to StantonWheeler, he said “I’m trying to say that no one is so concerned about the sentence because what’s going on here is that the process is the punishment.” Feeley quotes Wheeler as responding, “That’s your title” (p.48). Gerald Rosenberg tells a story of being personally devastated after presenting a paper as a graduate student on a panel at the annual meeting of the APSA on his controversial findings regarding law’s ineffectiveness in producing social change. Rosenberg was so shaken by the criticisms of what later became THE HOLLOW HOPE, and by being what he perceived to be the sole focus of the discussant and audience criticisms, that he had trouble rising from his chair when the session mercifully ended. At this moment, two compassionate scholars that he had not met previously, Lee Epstein and Larry Baum, consoled the shaken graduate student and gave him a “pep talk.” Many of us can relate to a disappointing public talk about our work. Graduate students and junior faculty scholars may find that such stories help them to prepare for potentially nuanced receptions for their research. Indeed, how scholarly work is initially received in preliminary forms and the researcher’s reaction to commentary may play important roles in the research process.

While there is much that we can learn from the interviews in this volume about practical issues in research, especially field research projects, the editors miss opportunities to place these interviews in a broader framework and, thus, raise more fundamental questions about the research process and its products. They write in the introductory essay that some who read their manuscript suggested that these interviews could be employed in developing a sociological study of law and society research. They resisted, they write, because their ambitions were more modest. This is disappointing, even if understandable, because the lack of a broader framework narrows the insights that readers may derive from the interviews that are presented. In their essay, the editors introduce the notion that research methods may be viewed as “social practices,” but this notion is not developed further. If they use this concept in ways similar to philosophy of science, such as in the work of Bruno Latour (1988), analyses of research method would focus attention on the social impact of research products. Developing a view of method as social practice, for example, may have important implications for how we view the role of research in either discovering or, alternatively, constructing social reality.

The question of how social research, and indeed how law itself, relates to “reality” and whether or not quotation marks [*817] should be placed around the term reality have been intensely discussed and debated within the law and society community. Tensions between objectivity and subjectivity, positivism and post-positivism, empiricism and interpretation, have all been explored in socio-legal studies. These debates, which should be of interest to junior and senior scholars alike, are not represented in this volume, despite the fact that scholars interviewed for this project, as well as other prominent socio-legal researchers, have divergent views on such questions. At the very least, readers without an historical view of the law and society movement might not realize that, at the same time that much of the research described in this book was conducted and published, questions were raised about objectivity, empiricism, and positivism in socio-legal studies by such scholars as David Trubek (1984), David Trubek and John Esser (1989), Austin Sarat (1990), and Christine Harrington and Barbara Yngvesson (1990), along with a host of scholars associated with critical movements in legal studies. Indeed, some of the scholars interviewed for this book raised important questions about traditional methods of research and the assumptions underlying their use.

Nevertheless, Herbert Kritzer does an excellent job in his concluding chapter of looking across the interviews and project descriptions for common themes – how research evolves, the challenges of data collection, the importance of writing as part of the research process, the benefits and difficulties of collaborative work – and drawing reasonable conclusions. In this chapter, he focuses on the distinction between quantitative and qualitative research, suggesting that the best trained socio-legal scholars will be trained in both types of methods. This is a useful insight, but does not address the notion of method as practice, nor does it question what we produce in our quantitative, qualitative, and interpretive research. Do we provide descriptions and explanations of social reality? Or is that reality constructed by that which we study, law for example, and by the research that we produce? If research and method are “social practices,” what do those practices produce?

CONDUCTING LAW AND SOCIETY RESEARCH is a stimulating book that provides important suggestions and advice regarding how one conducts research and about the habits of mind one may seek to develop to sustain an outstanding program of research. Although important questions regarding the role of socio-legal research are left relatively unexplored, there is much to be learned from the research experiences described in the skillfully edited interview transcripts.

Harrington, Christine B. and Barbara Yngvesson. 1990. “Interpretive Sociolegal Research,” 15 LAW & SOCIAL INQUIRY 135.

Latour, Bruno 1988. SCIENCE IN ACTION. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Sarat, Austin 1990. “Off to Meet the Wizard: Beyond Validity and Reliability in the Search for a Post-empiricist Sociology of Law.” 15 LAW & SOCIAL INQUIRY 155. [*818]

Trubek, David M. 1984. “Where the Action Is: Critical Legal Studies and Empiricism.” 36 STANFORD LAW REVIEW 575.

Trubek, David M. and John Esser 1989. “ ‘Critical Empiricism’ in American Legal Studies: Paradox, Program, or Pandora’s Box?” 14 LAW & SOCIAL INQUIRY 3.

© Copyright 2009 by the author, Mark Kessler.