Empirical Legal Research Network

Empirical Legal Research Network

Empirical Legal Research Network

Annual Report 2013-14

Smita Kheria and Shawn Harmon

September 2014


The Empirical Legal Research Network (ELRN) was established in February 2009 and was convened by Professor Lesley McAra. After some enforced inactivity, the network was re-launched under the co-convenorship of Dr Smita Kheria and Dr Shawn Harmon in 2013-14. The ELRN’s key functions are to:

  • serve as a nexus for those interested in empirical research and the study of law in society;
  • facilitate trans-disciplinary research collaboration on topics relating to law in the real world and to disseminate the results of such research to the community within and beyond the University of Edinburgh;
  • provide a resource of methodological skills and legal expertise which can be drawn on by academics, policy-makers and practitioners;
  • support and encourage a range of specialist training and knowledge exchange activities.

Research undertaken by members of ELRN crosses a range of disciplines and subjects but can be categorised under four inter-related areas of concern: (1) institutional and professional cultures, frameworks and practices; (2) communities, human geography and build environments; (3) families and relationships; and (4) individual health, identity and wellbeing.


While the day-to-day activities of the ELRN are planned and performed by Kheria and Harmon with assistance from various SOL offices, the ELRN benefits from advice from its Steering Committee (SC). More specifically, the SC's role is to provide strategic direction and guidance onthe network’s functions and also to identify, support, and promote the network’s activities. The SC members in 2013-14 were Dr Smita Kheria (Law), Dr Shawn H.E. Harmon (Law), Prof Susan McVie (Law), Dr Sharon Cowan (Law) and Dr Toby Kelly (Social and Political Science). The Steering Committee met virtually on one occasion, but was unable to find suitable dates to meet in person.

Key Activities

It was a busy first year of the new ELRN. The following activities were undertaken:

  • the network’s website was redeveloped;[1]
  • a reconstituted steering committee was put in place;
  • membership in the network was revisited and renewed; and
  • a programme of events and activities was undertaken.

The ‘inaugural’ event was a ELRN/CREATe Empirical Capacities Workshop on 13-14 June 2013 organised in association with CREATe, the RCUK centre for copyright and new business models in the creative economy, held a researchers’ conference and empirical capacity building event at St. Leonard’s Hall, University of Edinburgh. Aimed at identifying empirical research interests and training needs, and exploring some of the challenges and benefits of a range of interdisciplinary methodologies, the event was intended to help CREATe members, particularly early career members, shape their projects. Keynote speakers were Professors Charles Baden-Fuller, Susan McVie, Daniel Zizzo, and Robin Williams. There were also panel discussions where recent studies which have used innovative approaches to address copyright issues were scrutinised. The event closed with two open format panel sessions at which researchers could discuss specific methodological questions with experts, including Harmon and Dr Gill Haddow. The conference was considered a success and an excellent re-launch of the ELRN.

A second major workshop, the Challenges Arising from Qualitative Methods Workshop was held on 12 March 2014. This afternoon workshop examined some key issues and challenges that arise in the use of qualitative research methods in law. Prof. Doreen McBarnet, led a session on ‘Qualitative Research Methods: Interviewing’. This offered practical advice on how to approach qualitative research, frame research questions, negotiate access and conduct semi-structured interviews. It offered practical tips and warnings about pitfalls. The presentation also discussed the 'grounded theory' approach to research, in which empirical research techniques are not merely atheoretical tools, but the source of new concepts and theories. Prof Graeme Laurie and Ms Nayha Sethi led a session on ‘Qualitative Research Methods: Stakeholder Engagement and the Iterative Design of the Scottish Health Informatics Programme’. They used their experience on the SHIP project[2] where they had adopted a mixed-methods approach. They shared reflections on the methodologies used to deliver the SHIP Good Governance Framework. In particular, they considered key contributions made to the project, the methodologies adopted, and the reasons for choosing them (and rejecting others). The workshop was attended by a number of faculty, staff and PhD students from the SOL and the School of Social and Political Science. Positive feedback was received for the event and the network plans to run more such workshops in the future.

In addition to these training-style workshops, aseries of lunchtime seminars were run in 2013-14 which provided an opportunity for ELRN members to present their recent findings, or to discuss ongoing research and receive valuable feedback. The following presentations were given:

Logistics / Title / Presenter(s) / Description
NMR, OC / Methodological conundrums of researching lawyers in a hybrid institution / Agathe Mora, SPS / This was a presentation of ethnographic fieldwork in a newly formed legal institution in the Bosnia-Serbian region.
NMR, OC / Methodological Challenges in Empirical Research on Copyright / Jane Cornwell, SOL
Smita Kheria, SOL / Intellectual property disputes rarely make it to court and even more rarely to a court judgment. Most disputes arise and are disposed of by private assertion and settlement 'in the shadow of the law'. But how much do we really know about the level of protection achieved by rightholders acting on this basis, without recourse to the courts? As part of CREATe, the RCUK Centre for Copyright and New Business Models in the Creative Economy, Jane Cornwell will be leading a project looking at copyright and civil enforcement in Scotland. This study will work with advisers acting in this field to investigate the profile of copyright enforcement activity and the practices surrounding, and factors influencing, the outcomes reached in copyright disputes. In this seminar, Jane will be discussing and inviting comments on her proposed research design, which aims to combine mixed empirical methods to achieve a fuller understanding of this under-researched area.
The exploration of new business models that focus on maximization of value, rather than use of stringent copyright protection, has found particular favour as one possible solution in the adaptation of copyright in a continuously evolving digital environment. While copyright is seen as an incentive to creators and creativity more generally, the exact role played by copyright in supporting the creative practice of individual creators across creative industry sectors remains unclear. The position of creators as one of the stakeholders with an interest in the nature of copyright policy has been acknowledged but empirical attention on the role of copyright in the creative practice of individual creators remains minimal: only a handful of copyright focused studies in the United Kingdom have consulted creators directly or secondary data pertaining to them. Smita is leading a project on ‘Individual Creators’ for CREATe (the RCUK Centre for Copyright and New Business Models in the Creative Economy) which will investigate the role of copyright and related business models in the day to day creative practice of individual creators in a number of creative sectors in the UK. It aims to understand the positive and negative space of copyright through the individual creators’ perspectives. In this seminar, Smita will discuss and invite comments on the proposed research design of this project and some of the methodological challenges.
NMR, OC / Empirical Elements of the InVisible Difference Project / Hannah Donaldson, U of Stirling
(with Shawn Harmon) / This talk stems from a 3-year AHRC-funded interdisciplinary project called InVisible Difference, which seeks to better understand authorship and ownership in dance created by and for disabled people, and the role of law in that setting. While the project has just entered its second year, the team has conducted micro-ethnographic observations of disabled dance artists and choreographers as they design and practice dance. This talk will focus on the conduct of our preliminary observations by team members from different disciplines, and how those observations are enhancing our understanding of the dance setting and the law in practice.
KMS, OC / Biocultural Community Protocols and Benefit-Sharing: An Interdisciplinary Enquiry / Elisa Morgera, SOL / “Benefit-sharing” can be understood as the allocation among different stakeholders of economic as well as socio-cultural and environmental advantages arising from the use of natural resources. It is not clear, however, whether benefit-sharing can conceptually and practically serve as a creative and constructive legal tool for equitably addressing global environmental challenges by accommodating the special circumstances, cultural preferences and vulnerabilities of developing countries and of indigenous peoples and local communities in transitioning to the green economy. The talk will provide an opportunity to discuss the objectives and proposed methodology of an inter-disciplinary study of ‘biocultural community protocols’ as tools for articulating and implementing benefit-sharing at the intersection of international, transnational, national and indigenous communities’ customary law. The study will integrate empirical legal research and political sociology and be carried out, inter alia, through field missions (in partnernership with two NGOs) in India, Malaysia, South Africa, Guatemala, and in the Greek island of Ikaria.

The ELRN’s year ended with a ticketed participative lecture entitled ‘The Rise and Fall of Empirical Research on Law in the UK and the US’ held on 13/06/14 in the Lorimer Room. Chaired by Dr Sharon Cowan, this was a discursive event led by Prof. Michael Adler (School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh) and Prof. Jonathan Simon (School of Law, University of California) and based on a paper they jointly published.

Ethics Support

The ELRN also instructed the Mason Institute’s Summer Intern in the preparation and finalisation of a document entitled Ethics Guidelines and Resources, a research ethics resource document made available to all members of the SOL through the ELRN, MI and RKO webpages.[3]

Forward Plan

The ELRN is planning to run its lunchtime seminar series again and to that end will:

  • approach individual academics undertaking specific projects (Gill Haddow, SPS, Christine Bell, SOL, Andrew Neal, SPS, etc.); and
  • solicit the membership about what they want.

For practical reasons – Kheria on sabbatical and Harmon being away for the summer and serving as PPD for the first time – we intend to back-end the bulk of our activities to second semester.

We will approach ERI to promote future events and network notices so as to increase reach, and will discuss with Law Support getting an ELRN Twitter feed added to the website (with the aim of following the Law Society Association, Socio-Legal Studies Association, and key Twitter-active empirical legal researchers.


[2]SHIP was a Scotland-wide interdisciplinary project aimed at maximising the research potential of linking electronic health records. It included several different strands, including research, training, public engagement, and information governance (for which we were responsible), and involving four Scottish Universities and NHS Scotland. It therefore required continual engagement across different disciplines, with multiple stakeholders (and multiple expectations!).