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Designing an Empirical Legal Study

This section offers broad advice on what to keep in mind when constructing a research design.  Many of the points discussed below are drawn from and presented more fully within Epstein & King (2002) as well as King, Keohane, & Verba (1994) which are highly recommended sources for in-depth guidance on proper research design and execution.

The first step of any empirical research study is to formulate a research question.  What does the study seek to explain? A good research question should generally conform to the following rules:

  • The question should be relevant to the real world.  It is important that the study seeks to provide practical and important implications for society.
  • The question should contribute to an existing body of scholarly literature.  By speaking to an established set of related studies, the researcher can help avoid significant problems such as duplicating or overlooking previous work. Issac Newton’s famous quote, “if I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants” colorfully illustrates this rule. 

Once the research question is clearly stated, the next step is to offer a clear answer to the question which is theoretically informed and from which falsifiable hypotheses can be derived.  The hypothesis should:

  • Be stated clearly enough to allow for a test which can determine if the proposed answer is wrong. 
  • Specify a relationship between an outcome (dependent variable) and one or more explanatory variables (independent variables).

 If there is insufficient evidence to reject a clearly stated, falsifiable hypothesis, then the theory becomes increasingly plausible.  A theory which offers many observable implications and therefore more opportunities to be tested has the potential to become a very strong theory if the hypotheses derived from it cannot be rejected.

Remember that the fundamental objective of empirical research is to make inferences—that is, using known facts to understand unknown facts. Typically we use observable data (known facts) to test certain hypotheses which are guided by theory to uncover these unknown facts.

Let's take a look at a simple example.

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