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Designing an Empirical Legal Study: A Simple Example

Say that we are interested in the criminal justice effects caused by Miranda v.  Arizona.  Since the ruling obliges police officers to inform criminal suspects in custody of their right to consult with an attorney and against self-incrimination, a possible implication of the ruling may be that suspects are less likely to divulge incriminating information having heard their rights following their arrest. This may make it harder for prosecutors to make their case—which, in turn, may lead to lower conviction rates.  Given our theory, the components of our empirical study might be as follows:

Research question: “Has Miranda v. Arizona caused a decrease in homicide conviction rates in Massachusetts?” 

Hypothesis: “Homicide conviction rates in Massachusetts will be lower in the post Miranda v Arizona period.”

An important point to make here is that if we are interested in inferring the general effects of Miranda on criminal justice procedures, a failure to reject this single test on homicide conviction rates in Massachusetts may not be enough to categorically declare that Miranda has hindered the work of prosecutors.  There may be something unique about homicide convictions and/or Massachusetts which may obscure the general effect of the ruling.  For this reason, we would want to expand the observable implications of our theory—perhaps testing conviction rates for many types of crimes in all states.  For examples of such studies, see Cassell and Fowles (1997), Donohue (1998), and Leo (2000) for a review of empirical studies on the consequences of Miranda

Helpful Sources on Research Design

Articles/Books

Cane, Peter, and Herbert M Kritzer . The Oxford Handbook of Empirical Legal Research. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Creswell, John W. Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches. 3rd. Los Angeles: Sage, 2009.

Epstein, Lee, and Gary King. "The Rules of Inference." The University of Chicago Law Review 69, no. 1 (2002): 1-133.

Keller, Dana K, and Mary Lou Casadevall-Keller. The Tao of Research: A Path to Validity. Los Angeles: Sage, 2010.

King, Gary, Robert O Keohane, and Sidney Verba. Designing Social Inquiry: Scientific Inference in Qualitative Research. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994.

 

Online/Offline Courses

List of courses on qualitative methods at Harvard and other local institutions (Harvard-IQSS)

Doctoral Seminar in Research Methods I – MIT OpenCourseWare

Qualitative Research: Design and Methods – MIT OpenCourseWare

Empirical Research Methods Workshops at Berkeley Law

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