Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Law and Empirical Studies, Signs of the Times

For anyone interested in the robustness of the current academic law interest in empirical studies, the scene in Boalt Hall's Goldberg room last Thursday was interesting. JSP's own Rob MacCoun (JSP and the Goldman School of Public Policy), www.law.berkeley.edu/faculty/profiles/facultyProfile.php?facID=239, gave a lecture/mini-workshop on quantitative analysis. I expected maybe 15 or 20 colleagus to show up. By my count more than 40 were in attendance. The lecture was superb and raised a lot of key questions about reading empirical findings in the now conventional regression table format that his becoming very common at job talks here at Boalt and elsewhere. Rob pointed out that quantitative research isn't really about numbers, but about concepts. Brilliant numbers cannot save a bone-head concept. Moreover, all numbers are vulnerable to error so that careful researchers seek to triangulate around their predictions.

Notice that such triangulation requires something totally non-statistical, i.e., a convincing story about what the output you are counting really means in context. Of course telling such a story requires theory and qualitative information about the entities emitting the numbers. This leads to Simon's first law of the new empirical order:

The race is not to the quantitatively swift but to those who can marry quantitative and qualitative data in the most creative and theoretically reflexive ways.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Probing the Penal State

May 5 and 6th JSP co-sponsored a conference titled "Probing the Penal State" that brought together faculty and graduate students from Princeton, University of Chicago, and Berkeley. The conference was organized by Loic Wacquant, of Berkeley's Sociology Department, and Bruce Western of Princeton's Sociology Department. Students reported on a wide range of scholarship exploring aspects of hyper incarceration in America and its correlates. Topics included ethnographies of parolees who work in the commercial day labor industry and of young black men in urban Philadelphia who spend much of their time in legal limbo wanted on warrant, and quantitative research on the affect of incarceration on families. The conference reveals a distinct revival of socio-legal research on penal institutions. In the 1980s when I was in JSP, it was one of the few places to study the growing trend of hyper or mass incarceration in America. Few if any sociology or political science graduate students were encouraged to do research on penality. Today it is very much on the agenda of both disciplines, as well as economics and psychology. JSP continues to attract students interested in the field. Santhi Leon, a recent Boalt JD who is working on a dissertation on the new wave of sex offender laws presented some analysis of the forms of psychiatric expertise mobilized in earlier periods of heightened enforcement of laws against sex offenders. Kellie Bryant, who just completed her first year in the JSP program, presented a paper on the Supreme Court's decision of last year in Johnson v. California, holding that California's practice of segregating some inmates on the basis of race as a hedge against gang violence must be tested against the heightened standard fo racial classifications. Bryant sees the case as balancing two faces of the penal state, rights protector and security enforcer.

For further information on the conference see: