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Introduction: Legal Ethnography: New Dialogues, Enduring Methods

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Abstract

This volume is the result of a project in which ethnographers were asked to write essays that explored different research techniques that they have used to understand complex legal issues in a variety of social, political, and legal contexts. Each essay addresses a particular set of analytical problems that the ethnographers have confronted, or a particular type of data or research method that the ethnographer found useful. Because of its detailed focus on actual research techniques by ethnographers studying law in diverse settings, this volume will serve as a guide for students who are designing their own methodologies, for scholars who are new to, but interested in the possibilities of, ethnographic research, and for experienced ethnographers who are interested in theorizing about or reflecting on their own particular methodological problems. Like all ethnographic research, ethnographic studies of legal phenomena require both a serious engagement with theory and a methodological rigor. The chapters in this volume demonstrate how individual scholars have faced this two-part challenge in the course of research in different parts of the world and during different time periods.
INrnopu crroN
Lncer, ErrruocRAPrrY: Nnw DrAtocuns,
ENpunrNc M¡rrroDS
lune Støn ønd Mnrk Goodale
This volume is the result of a project in which ethnographers were asked to write
essays that explored different research techniques that they have used to understand
complo< legal issues in a variety of social, polidcal, arrd legal contexts. Each essay
addresses a particular set of analytical problems that the ethnographers have
confronted, or a particular rype of data or resea¡ch meihod that the ethnographer
found usefi¡I. Because ofits detailed focus on actual resea¡ch techniques by ethnog-
and during different time periods.
Theory and methods a-re munrally constitutive, but the Process by which each
constitutes the other is not a simple or static one. As the chapters in this volume
The traject
generation,
vetion arid
should be seriously considered. Readers of the chapters in this volume will be able to
2 / JUI|JB STARR AND MARK GOODALE
vicariously participate
ethnographic methods in this process as schola¡s from different discþlines, who use
to study legal phenomene, engage in these ongoing debates.
The Valae of Legal Ethnogrøplry
Many legd contexts today continue to be dynamic or unsable in unpredictable
ways. For example, the decision-making processes of marry institutions, especially
internationd tribunals, are subject to nonlegal political influences from transnational
soruces such that legal institutional integrity is commonly called into question.
Ethnographic methods a¡e usefi.rl tools for accessing tÏe complo< ways in which law,
decision-making, and legal regulations are embedded in wider socid processes.
Ethnographic methods a¡e also usefi¡l to schola¡s who employ a historic¿l framework
or who e¡<amine legal change. As both Sally Engle Merry and Lawrence Friedman
describe in their chapters, ethnographic methods c¿n be used to build a contemPo-
rary context in which to understand legal history.
Schola¡s who study the sociologicd context of law continue to develop uaditional
ethnographic approaches and their projects continue to integrate the historical srudy
of institution or a group into the fund¿mental fabric of resea¡ch projects. Schola¡s
also continue to engage in dialogues across disciplines about the effectiveness of
different methods, in light of concrete resea¡ch problems. Moreover, the degree to
which a resea¡cher employs qualitative or quentitative techniques is dictated in large
pan by the exigencies ofthe resea¡ch project itself, the context ofthe resea¡ch, and
new questions that emerge in the course of resea¡ch,
Resea¡chers who a¡e new to ethnography should approach this endeavor with
rigor and with an understanding of the types of commitment it demands.
Ethnographic resea¡ch requires a serious grapplingwith complor methodological "nd
theoretic¿l issues. Although anthropologists have played a fundamental role in the
development of ethnographic methods, other socid sciences have, especially in
recent yea$, begun to see the usefulness of ethnographic techniques. Resea¡chers
interested in taking an ethnographic approach to the sudy of legal phenomena
should keep in mind the fact that ethnographic resea¡ch is more than simply "h*g-
methodologies.'-and theoretical orient¿tions have found that a minimum of nvelve
months is nece¡sary to câpnrre the kind of rounded picture needed for later analysis.
pants. Ethnogrþhic research tends to produce knówledge that is deeply intertwined
rvrnouucrroN / 3
with local-power srructures. This means that legal ethnographers often find them-
selves confronting difficult problems, the political, legal, and methodological aspecrs
of which a¡e often impossible to untangle.
Tlte Projea of Ethnographic Research
lngland and France; see also Bryant Garth and Yv.' Dezalayt examination of the
how the 'transnational legal order" impacts va¡ious South Americ¿¡ countries). In
conceptualizing globalizarion, Appadurai places more emphasis on rhe ways people
a¡ound the world resist globalization through their imagination. Legal ethnographers
also analyze resistance in rhe form of local social movemenrs, ads;f civil disoiedi-
ence, q$es in loc¿l courts, and cases before international legal forums. These a¡e
a¡enas that demand the specid training of ethnographic resea¡chers.l
;,'r'.i*:#'îil.',:ï:ffi ",*ï
'' focus in order to view the va¡ious
points and opinions which make up complex neworla (see, for example, Goodale
in this volume; see also Merry 2001).2 .As Ma¡cus (lggi, l99g) and others have
argued, "multisited ¡ssEarçli'-i¡ which an ethnographer does resea¡ch in several
sites-is bne way to comprehend the linkages that form the 'world systerri' and
constitute what was formerþ understood as 'rhe local qrstem."
Different Disciplines, Common Themes: A Suwey of Methodologies
legal ethnographers
ence, and law-jt is
of their ethnograph
4 / Ju¡rn sr¿ln AND MARK GooDALE
an impressive array of research methods. These methods are complementary sticks in
an expansive bundle of methodological opdons. Legal ethnographic research, like all
ethnographic research, is enriched by this diversity. Moreover, the kind of interdisci-
plinary dialogue regarding methods on display here, centered a¡ound common
themes, is an important part of the project of ethnography.
In this last section of the Inuoduction, we-introduce the chapters in two ways:
First, we give a brief synopsis of each so that tÏe reader can glimpse each chaptert
content; second, we aÍrange the chapters thematically, highlighting important differ-
ences and simila¡ities.
The Chapters
The volume is divided into two pa-rts. Pa¡t I is entided "PerForming Legal
Ethnography' and the bulk ofthe chapters a¡e found here, wlúch is the hea¡t ofthe
volume. Each chapter focuses on the specific techniques used by the resea¡cher in the
course ofdesigning and conducting a legal ethnographic research pro;ect in light of
the theoretic¿l approaches tÏe resea¡cher found relevant and useful.
Susan Hirsch's chapter is based on fieldwork in Tanzania that involved her with
locd activist groups organizing for broader legal righa for women. Hirsch argues
that legal ethnographers can lea¡n from feminist resea¡chers who regularly blur the
line ben¡¡een resea¡ch and personal engegement. Specificall¡ she contends that
borrowing methods from wider feminist scholarship a¡d acdvism can help legal
ethnographers negotiate "the methodological difficulties of studying legal conscious-
ness; the problematic relationship between the resea¡cher and research subject in
eúrnographic fieldwork; and the blurred bounda¡ies between scholarship and
activism, especially in sociolegal studies."
Philip Pa¡nell makes innovative trse of media studies in the cou¡se of his resea¡ch.
He argues dat the legal ethnographer shodd try to discover another cultu¡e's
nonacademiç: theoretical inventions by conducting research into that cultu¡e's
roles in the U¡rited States will affect the resea¡chert perceptions of another legal
culture. P.ttæll found that in order to understand urban legal culrure in Manila, he
was required=to 'úeli up and down the informal legal nenvorls t}rat connect the
state with pvq¡rle at the bonom of the national legal hiera¡chy.
Ma¡k G<iþdale's a¡tide discusses the implications for conducting legal ethno-
graphic fieldffòrk in an era of globalization. Based on fieldwork conducted in the late
1990s, this inicle describes several wap in which legal prectices and ideas have
become
Bolivia t
global c
resea¡ch.
JüØestern human rights discourses into many rural a¡eas. In one striking example of
this process, lègal services centers were opened in rural Bolivia that were supposed to
rvrnooucrroN / 5
protect the righa of women and child¡en, as oudined in specific United Nations and
related proclamations. The directors of these centers uaveled to va¡ious cities in
Bolivia to receive uaining in these rights doctrines from both u¡ba¡r intellectuals and
representatives ofinternational agencies, after which they returned to their villages to
educate locals. The inuoduction of these new r¡¡derstandings of human rights led to
both ideologic¿l and practical transformations at the loc¿l lwel. The author was able
to track these global, national, regional, and locd a¡ticulations by re-envisioning the
resea¡ch site as multileveled and multidimensional.
Jane Collier shows the usefirlness of sociolinguistic analysis as a method in the
cou¡se of her resea¡ch on witchcraft beliefs in Chiapas, Mexico. Collier argues that
in her experiences as a legal ethnographer, uaditional methods that led her to ask
questions about crimes and punishments were inadequate to explain why people
divorced or sought red¡ess in the local couft for a variety of ha¡ms. This discovery
was facilitated in part by analyzing the specific terms local people used in their own
language for the va¡ious offenses. This analysis revealed that legality, witchcraft, and
religion are not separated in peoplet minds in Chiapas. However, although religion
and law a¡e interrelated, Collier ¡ejects the notion that "law," broadly defined, serves
¡rimarily as a means of social còntrol, a view that, she suggests, reflecs 'Western
biases. Her use ofsociolinguistic analysis implies that people in Chiapas are engaged
in a constant process of negotiation, a process that does not finally resolve conflicr,
but only manages them from generation to generation.
Robert Kidder's chapter's focuses on the usefi¡lness of the comparative method,
and is based on field resea¡ch in Japan and among the,\mish in I¿ncester County,
Pennsylvania. The received wisdom regarding people of both cultures is that they
value "law-avoidance," meaning that they employ va¡ious means to avoid having to
resort to legal arenas to resolve conflicts. Kiddert aúempt to test this received
wisdom by exploring the legal consciousness of both cultures raises t}rree major
methodological issues. First, how should the resea¡cher interpret statemenß by
people who reject comparative analytic approaches to conflict? Second, how can the
statements and actions of both Japanese and Amish be. interpreted reliably and
validly? And, third, how can ethnographic resea¡ch be both a vehicle for the subjec-
dve'Toice" ofthe resea¡ch subjects, and yet contribute to generalized social scientific
knowledge?
Susan Coutint chapter explores methods used during her ongoing fieldwork at
the borders of immigration and politics in California- Because her work involves her
at rhe cenrer of intense political and legal issues in California, she demonstrates the
fact that participant observation and interviewing can never be simply neutral tech-
niques for gathering data- Rather, such activities by the researcher place her'among
a group of people who a¡e engaged in a particular set of activities." In Coutin's case,
these activities a¡e related to political and legal activism in support of immigrants.
An important theoretic¿l implication derived from Coutin's wo¡k is that par-ticular
resea¡ch contexts can give new (and somedmes politicized) meanings to uaditional
ethnographic techniques.
Sally Engle Merry er<plores the implications of "doing ethnography' in legal
a¡chives in Hawai'i. The¡e a¡e several challenges conÊonting sociolegd resea¡chers
attempting to use legal a¡chival material. As Merry shows, an anthropologist using
6 / ruxs srARR AND MARK GooDALE
a¡chival legal to<ts, such as cou¡c records, faces a challenging situation: In order to
make sense of these records, they need to be grounded in an ethnography of the
surrounding community. This indudes an analysis of its major acors and its chang-
ing polidcal, economic, social, and cultural terrain over a long period of time. In
order to do this, the anthropologist must take an ethnographic approach in the
a¡chives. As Merry argues, ethnographic work and a¡chival resea¡ch naturally compli-
ment each other, and both should be used by the sociolegal researchea especially
when one is attempting to u¡rderstand legal processes a¡d social change over time.
Merry is skeptical tÏat one technique can be used without the other when add¡ess-
ing questions of long-term social and legal change. Legal ethnography without
archival resea¡ch cannot make connections between court processes and the chang-
ing social order; converseþ archival resea¡ch without social history risls capitalizing
only on dramatic trials at the orpense of the everyday social order and it may ignore
the local contextual reladonships which an ethnographic perspective c¿¡ rweal.
Herbert trGiøert a¡ticle is a cridcd discussion of the limitations of interviewing
as an ethnographic method compared with participant observation. His resea¡ch in
Madison, 'SØisconsin consisted of the following a structu¡ed mail survry of
'Wìsconsin attorneys (-orkirg on a contingency fee basis), obsewations in three
different firms (one month in each firm), and a series of semi-structu¡ed inrerviews
with contingency fee practitioners a¡ound the state. Using extended portions of
observational field notes in his chapter, IGi¿er concludes that observation allows the
resea¡cher to gather a qualitatively differenr kind of data compared with interview-
ing. Because of the open-ended¡ess of observation, tÏe erhnographer is able to
discover patterns ofbehavior, in this c¿se patterns among practicing attorneys, thet
the interview setting simply ca¡rnot uncover. Fo¡ IGitzer, the optimal research proj-
ect would use a combination of both intewiewing and observation, wit}r observation
servjng as the "check" against the data gathered from initial and ongoing interviews.
ânne Griffiths's resea¡ch involved the entensive use of life histories as pan of
" wß- ethnographic study i
sysgll, or m tryrng to resrst
dre:'Fxtent to which legality
reflggts the gendered nature of society as a whole. \Tithin the legal system, Griffiths
fouúid there were even differences betuce-nwomen in terms of the amor¡nt of protec-
funiia of legal ethnographic work The first a¡ticle, by Lawrence Friedman, a law
proþor and legal historian, muses on the value of a cultural anthropologicd
approach, and in doing so he responds to some recent criticisms of the field. In
particular, he discusses the ways that the analysis of court records, colleced over
tim;., need to be put in a cultural conrexr to be understood. Friedman has conducted
legal archival york:: a wide range of topics, from how coun reform has attempted
to protect senior citizens to American inheritance patterns. Here he draws largeþ
nrrnooucrroN / 7
from his work on changes in America¡r divorce law f¡om the late nineteenth cenn¡ry
to the present. His essay is an affirmation not only of the value of ethnographic
methods for legal history but the necessity fo¡ them. He argues that raw statistical
ðata arc meaningless without placement in a wider social context.
The volume concludes with a chapter by I-aura Nader. Nadert contribution, writ-
ten in the style of what she calls "an intellectual autobiography," has one major
pupose: to show that legal ethnograph¡ as dweloped and pracdced by l.æl antfuo-
pologists this century, is not synonymous with fieldwork but rather describes flexible
and changing approaches to the study of sociolegal resea¡ch problems. As Nader
argues, although legal anthropologists have found participant observation, interview-
ing, and other classic techniques indispensable in pursuing ethnographic research, the
use of such techniques does not make a fieldwcirk project an ethnography ds such. She
uses er<amples from her many different resea¡ch projecs-beginning in 1957-to
illustrate the her notion that "in ethnography, the methods a¡e subordinate to the
questions being pursued. Methods become eclectic bec¿r¡se aloyalty to asingle tech-
nique, wen something like particþant observation, commonly stultifies resea¡ch."
CommonThemes
Besides the fact that all of the chapters in the volume demonstrate the use of diverse
methods as part ofthe project ofethnography, there a¡e several specific convergences
between the va¡ious chapters in Prdcticing Etbnograpþ in Ldw. The chapters by
Coutin, Griffiths, and Hirsch provide examples for how resea¡chers can design meth-
ods which allow them to take an active role in the institutions and phenomena they
srudy. This active personal engage
studying legalities linked to wider
and d¡e conffibutions by Coutin,
resea¡ch methods can be adopted to facilitate this important Process.
. The chapters by Goodale, Kidder,'and Pa¡nell show how methodologies must
now take into account the loel-regional-global a¡ticulations that a¡e amplified by
processes of globalization. Kidder and Pa¡nell both confront this problem through
the use of the comparative method. In doing so, both show the difficulties with a¡riv-
classically qualitative methods. He then locates these methods in relation to the more
quantitative techniques that he is familia¡ with as a political scientist.
I8 / furvn srARR AND MARK GooDALE
AII the ethnographers in the volume have critically reevaluared qpecific methods
they have used in the cou¡se of their resea¡ch projecs. This is, indeed, an important
part of the project of ethnography iaelf. Collier's article, for example, shows how she
c:rme to realize that he¡ ea¡lier focus on legal processes did not help her understand
why local people used the cours. By changing her approach to examine the laaguage
people used while in court, she gained deeper insight into lawt meaning in Chiapas.
Finall¡ Nader draws on her resea¡ch ei<periences since the late 1950s to show how
she has continually critiqued and reformulated her own resea¡ch techniques, even as
the theoretic¿l problems she conÊonted have changed.
Conclusion: Iægal Ethnography and Its Possibilities
'What the chapters in Praaicing Ethnograplry in Laut demonstrare above all is that
even as the theory behind legal ethnographic resea¡ch shifts as párt ofthe ongoing
project of ethnograph¡ some resea¡ch techniques will remain stable a¡d effective.
This continuity allows researchers to view the whole sweep of sociolegal scholarship
with critic¿l and constructive eyes in order to develop an appreciation for the endur-
ing problems of law and society resea¡ch and to understand that deep and thick
ethnography is one of the best routes we-have in comprehending the cgmplexity of
law and legal processes in a changing society.
Notes
1. Fo¡ other examples of the ways in which legal ethaographers have grappled with the prob-
Iems of globalization during ¡esea¡ch, see Goodale 2001; Maurer 1997;Mrerry 2000; Riles
2000; and \Øoodi,viss 1998. For a critical discussion ofthe issues facing legal ethnographers
working in a globalized contelc, see Da¡ian-Smith 2000; Nader 1995, 1999. For a discus-
sion of the challenges facing researchers worHng in contocts with NGOs and other devel-
opment agencies--åut symbols of globalization-see rhe recenr symposium on "NGOs,
Power, and Development" in ¡he Politbal and lzgal AnthropologX Retieu (PoIAR 2001).
2. Other ways to research global-legal wents that c¡¡ unfold simultaneously in dispersed loca-
orate resea¡ch teams a¡rd the use of info¡mation techaolory,
be used to communicate with informants a¡rd conijuct
¡+
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Panr I
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