Breaking the force of habit, or: legal empirical self-help for legal scholars


Anyone who has ever wished to change an unwanted habit knows the complexity of the related emotional if not biological aspects of changing, as well as how it ultimately requires concentrated effort and pure strength of will. As habits are most often something one is relatively unaware of, or ways of doing things one does not even think to question, in order to break a habit one must first recognize it. We all have both good and bad habits. Awareness of habits would not only give cause to appreciate the good ones but also provide motivation for ridding oneself of the less desirable ones. Now, how do habits, or more precisely recognizing and breaking them, relate to doing legal empirical research?

Habit: ”A settled disposition or tendency to act in a certain way, esp. one acquired by frequent repetition of the same act until it becomes almost or quite involuntary; a settled practice, custom, usage; a customary way or manner of acting.” / “An automatic, ‘mechanical’ reaction to a specific situation which usually has been acquired by learning and/or repetition.”

There is plenty of legal scholarship where force of habit may be the only thing trumping alternative ways of posing the question or reaching a certain outcome over others. For many of us scholars, this is a habit of which we are wholly unaware. A lay manner in which to put one aspect of the added value of legal empirical research – after all, I am merely a budding legal empiricist myself – would be that in setting up the empirical research design as well as throughout the stages of the research process, one tends to consider alternative worlds or explanations and deal with plausible counterfactuals, as well as with unthought-of questions that pop up out of the sample. Explaining the results of empirical research warrants reporting the research design, whereas in less empirical research, the (possible) presence of such considerations at a given stage of research is hardly ever reported to the reader together with the results (see Linos and Carlson 2017). Such observations of existing habits call for a measure of introspection. How do I do research and does mine suffer from bad habits?

Empiricism: “Primary reliance on evidence derived from observation, investigation, or experiment rather than on abstract reasoning, theoretical analysis, or speculation; the use of such methods in any field.”

Putting it crudely, in the field of law there are plenty of significant and interesting questions that legal scholars can investigate by using qualitative as well as quantitative empirical methods. Those and other methods may well lead to the same – or different – results. Nevertheless, I believe important questions that can be investigated empirically, should be also approached empirically, not necessarily only empirically. This is the point where habits and empirical research as self-help for legal scholars meet. By putting the ‘legal’ in front of the ‘empirical’ – and not the other way around like across the Atlantic ( – we wish not to circle the lawyers’ wagons against interdisciplinary work. However, we wish to place emphasis on the legal meaningfulness of the research questions and design instead, over the more instrumental role of available or attainable data and methods of analyzing it. Commingling qualitative and quantitative research as well as injecting legal knowledge in any interdisciplinary endeavor concerning law is considered desirable, if not essential, for legal empirical research.

What legal empirical approaches most immediately and noticeably improve in legal research – beyond the point of proving, or not, commonsensical speculations, hypotheses or assumptions rife in legal studies – is the coherent and explicit chain of reasoning leading from research design to the results. On the one hand, the open style of reporting makes empirical research more vulnerable to criticism, on the other, legal scholars gain vocabulary that allows the method actually applied to be recognized by oneself as well as expressed to others more widely.

Not everyone is in need of self-help or, regardless of need, receptive to it. But those who are: we welcome you to (the qualitative methods and data visualization techniques workshop preceding) NoLesLaw’s 2018 conference!

The definitions quoted above are from the Oxford English Dictionary.

Written by Suvi Sankari