Hostname: page-component-594f858ff7-pr6g6 Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2023-06-08T01:49:09.029Z Has data issue: false Feature Flags: { "corePageComponentGetUserInfoFromSharedSession": true, "coreDisableEcommerce": false, "corePageComponentUseShareaholicInsteadOfAddThis": true, "coreDisableSocialShare": false, "useRatesEcommerce": true } hasContentIssue false

Introduction: exploring the comparative in socio-legal studies

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 November 2016

Naomi Creutzfeldt*
Law School, University of Westminster, UK. E-mail:
Agnieszka Kubal
Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, University of Oxford, UK. E-mail:
Fernanda Pirie
Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, University of Oxford, UK. E-mail:
Rights & Permissions[Opens in a new window]


Among the diverse approaches to comparison in socio-legal studies, those that employ qualitative research, richness of detail and attention to context are the focus of this special issue. The Introduction draws on comparative law and social science literature to argue that comparison amongst studies of laws in contexts can follow different trajectories: the comparison may start from an assumption of similarity – in form, purposes or context – in order to identify significant differences; or it may identify significant similarity across social and cultural divides. What unites many of the projects of comparison undertaken by qualitative empirical researchers is that the points of relevant comparison are identified within the complexity of the empirical studies at hand; and they are allowed to emerge, or change, as the researcher comes to understand the facts and issues more deeply.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2016 

I. Introduction

As the field of socio-legal studies has diversified, the goal of understanding ‘law in society’ has expanded into the goals of understanding ‘laws in societies’. The field is characterised by research into the nature and role of different types of law and legal phenomena, as well as the part they play in different types of society. It seems important, then, to ask about the ways in which scholars are taking advantage of the possibilities offered by comparison amongst such examples. In what ways are empirical studies of laws in various contexts being brought into comparison with one another, either explicitly or implicitly? How do such exercises differ from, or relate to, the projects traditionally pursued by comparative lawyers? Is there a distinctive element to comparison involving qualitative empirical studies? It is the last question on which this special issue concentrates. The possibilities for comparison are not limited to what might be described as ‘law’, but also encompass informal legal norms and processes, and related understandings and attitudes.

The themes and debates developed in comparative law often touch upon questions and issues explored by socio-legal scholars, such as the relevance of context to legal change. There have been calls to expand the field. But how, if at all, can we compare the results of detailed empirical research, let alone case-studies from very different social legal traditions? David Nelken (in his paper in this issue) notes recurrent problems with attempts to use indicators to compare across contexts. He refers to criticisms about the misleading nature of many measures and variables, about the problems presented by differences in cross-national meanings and local understandings, and about the need to look behind statistics. There is an evident need to explore alternative approaches. In this Introduction, we review some of these debates and the issues they have identified for socio-legal research.

There is, of course, no single right approach to comparison, and different purposes lead to the use of different methods, with different outcomes. Indeed, the variety of possible comparative questions and methods is a feature of the rich and complex field of socio-legal studies. The purpose of the comparison is generally analysis and interpretation, rather than evaluation or prescription. Socio-legal scholars may not be concerned with the goals of legal change, the promotion or criticism of legal convergence, European harmonisation or processes of globalisation (cf. Nelken, Reference Nelken, Örücü and Nelken2007, p. 17, and in this issue). But descriptive and analytic work may, nevertheless, lay the foundation for the projects of those with more practical aims. Indeed, such projects often benefit from the sort of empirical detail with which we are here concerned. Several different possibilities are illustrated by the papers in this special issue.

In this Introduction, we discuss how scholars can employ qualitative research, richness of detail and attention to context as the basis for comparison, often using case-studies as a starting point, and allowing specific points of comparison to emerge from the material at hand. Qualitative and comparative work within the broader social sciences highlights the possibilities offered by using such material as the basis for illuminating socio-legal comparisons; both caution and inspiration can be found in the related debates. A number of different approaches to qualitative, socio-legal comparison are illustrated by the papers in this special issue.

II. Comparative law and socio-legal research

Recent years have seen calls for comparative lawyers to pay attention to the social contexts of the laws they consider and to study diversity as well as similarity (Reimann, Reference Reimann2002, p. 671; Cotterrell, Reference Cotterrell, Reimann and Zimmermann2006, p. 710; Reference Cotterrell, Örücü and Nelken2007, p. 133; Dannemann, Reference Dannemann, Reimann and Zimmermann2006; Nelken, Reference Örücü, Örücü and Nelken2007, pp. 19–25). But how is this to be done? Classical approaches to comparison identify difference – in legal substance, process or institutions – against a background of similarity. This is generally found in the overall structure of a legal system or the social problems it seeks to address. Most European states have, for example, developed comparable, albeit not identical, laws concerning the formation of contracts, the institution of marriage and many matters of public administration, as well as similar legal processes. In such contexts, noting difference – including systemic difference between civil- and common-law systems – can be undertaken against a backdrop of substantial similarity. Social context might, then, be relevant for explaining difference, or change and development (Nelken, Reference Örücü, Örücü and Nelken2007, pp. 21–27).

The distinctive ‘functionalist’ approach identifies a basis for comparison in the social problems addressed by a legal regime: it starts from the assumption that ‘the legal system of every society faces essentially the same problems, and solves these problems by quite different means though very often with similar results’ (Zweigert and Kötz, Reference Zweigert, Kötz and Weir1998, p. 102; Graziadei, Reference Graziadei, Reimann and Zimmermann2006). The points of similarity that form the basis for comparison are here identified in social goals and this approach has been credited with a turn towards ‘context’ (Michaels, Reference Michaels, Reimann and Zimmermann2006, p. 340; Riles, Reference Riles1999, p. 235). But can the socio-legal scholar assume that societies always, or even commonly, face ‘the same’ problems? Appreciation of the fact that many social problems are ‘constructed’ puts this in doubt (Frankenberg, Reference Frankenberg2006, pp. 444–445; Nelken, Reference Örücü, Örücü and Nelken2007, p. 33). This is not to undermine the value of a functionalist approach, so much as to indicate its limits. Mahy's paper (in this issue) takes the criticisms seriously and outlines a successful functionalist comparison, which links different labour arrangements to subtle, and sometimes unexpected, differences in context, as well as to formal and informal regulation.

When a functional approach is not appropriate, however, how are we to compare laws or legal systems that are substantially unlike or which seek to address different social problems; and how are we to describe the objects of comparison? Some scholars have advocated the study of ‘law in action’ (Palmer, Reference Palmer2005, p. 264; Reimann, Reference Reimann2002, p. 679); others the study of ‘legal culture’ (Cotterrell, Reference Cotterrell, Reimann and Zimmermann2006; Nelken, Reference Örücü, Örücü and Nelken2007, p. 29). It has been argued that comparative lawyers should study different ‘legal traditions’ (Glenn, Reference Glenn2000; Reference Glenn, Reimann and Zimmermann2006; Menski, Reference Menski2006; Bussani and Mattei, Reference Bussani, Mattei, Bussani and Mattei2012), ‘legal pluralism’ (Reimann, Reference Reimann2002; Cotterrell, Reference Cotterrell, Reimann and Zimmermann2006) and ‘globalisation’ (Twining, Reference Twining and Edge2001; Reference Twining, Örücü and Nelken2007), as well as transnational laws. Calls for expansion in the scope of inquiry have been accompanied by calls to ‘open out’ the field to other disciplinary approaches (Nelken, Reference Örücü, Örücü and Nelken2007, pp. 16–19).Footnote 1 However, as Örücü (Reference Örücü, Örücü and Nelken2007, pp. 56–62) points out, scholars face a daunting task when trying to undertake comparison amongst non-Western and non-state laws. Both legal culture and legal pluralism, as objects of study, have given rise to considerable disagreement (Cotterrell, Reference Cotterrell and Nelken1997; Roberts, Reference Roberts2005) and hardly seem to provide a stable basis for the identification of significant differences.

The issue that concerns scholars contemplating forms of comparison that go beyond doctrinal issues and span very different cultural contexts is the assumption of sufficient similarity in order to make the identification of difference meaningful. We need some way of speaking about the diversity of the human world without losing our grounding, to keep something firm in order to evaluate the significance of difference. This is particularly problematic when the subject matter is law in society or other socio-legal phenomena, which vary considerably and are found in different configurations, performing very different roles, across social contexts. Legrand (Reference Legrand1997; Reference Legrand, Feest and Nelken2001) insists that laws inevitably gain new meanings in different contexts, always coming to reflect historical and cultural norms, assumptions and understandings. On his view, both cross-cultural understanding and linguistic translation are inherently problematic, such that foreign law becomes an almost ‘unconquerable alien’ (Demleitner, Reference Demleitner1999; Whitman, Reference Whitman, Legrand and Munday2003, p. 322). This argument assumes radical differences amongst ‘cultures’ and, we suggest, raises an idealistic vision of law as ‘a product embedded in the special legal culture of the local actors’ (Graziadei, Reference Graziadei, Reimann and Zimmermann2006, pp. 467–470). Empirical studies of legal imposition and borrowing significantly undermine the universality of this assumption (Graziadei, Reference Graziadei, Reimann and Zimmermann2006; Frankenberg, Reference Frankenberg2006, pp. 445–446; Pirie, Reference Pirie2014, p. 79).Footnote 2 Laws may mirror normative assumptions shared by members of a society, but they may also be imposed or borrowed. The meaning of legal rules and categories is not entirely determined by context and culture. Laws, themselves, ‘construct authoritative images of social relationships and actions’ (Merry, Reference Merry1990, pp. 8–9); they influence the meaning of basic categories, such as property, contract, trust, responsibility and guilt (Cotterrell, Reference Cotterrell1998, p. 177). Laws can mirror underlying social norms and assumptions, then, but superficial similarity may mask different histories and assumptions and, as Whitman suggests, this in itself can provide a basis for comparison. Whitman (Reference Whitman, Legrand and Munday2003, p. 312) presents his comparison between the German and American legal concepts of ‘dignity’ as a move towards understanding difference and developing a sympathetic grasp of ‘other’ cultures. This is possible, he says, if we understand laws as normative systems, which justify certain actions and which are themselves based on important, if tacit, assumptions (Whitman, Reference Whitman, Legrand and Munday2003, pp. 334–336, 343). Laws can be a window onto society, then, although historical and social inquiry may be necessary in order to tease out the origins and roles of the concepts and rules in question. If a superficially similar concept, like ‘dignity’, reflects different historical assumptions in Germany and the US, this tells us something about the societies in question. However, when laws are borrowed from other contexts, or manipulated for particular purposes, they may be the product of other, equally interesting and comparable, dynamics. In each case, empirical detail helps the researcher identify the relevant points of comparison, whether in the substance or the form of laws, the ways in which they have come about, the roles they play and the basic assumptions they reflect.

How, then, do we compare without imposing our own categories, or a perception of similar ‘problems’, on those we study? These, we suggest, are not issues that can ever be wholly overcome. In order to set up meaningful comparison, we have to assume, and make explicit, certain points of similarity. In the case of comparison between countries, this might involve identifying shared histories or cultures within a geographical region, or a similar nation-building project following a revolution; or, in the case of more local comparison, we might assume shared concerns to address deviance or to regulate access to natural resources. In such cases, contrasting the laws, legal practices or attitudes to law can become meaningful. What is important for the empirical scholar is to be aware of the attendant assumptions – about historical and cultural similarity, or common human concerns – and the possibility that even the most basic assumptions may be confounded on closer empirical study.

Three papers in this special issue illustrate the way in which choice of appropriately general subjects, leading to carefully controlled studies, might address these issues. As Hertogh and Kurkchiyan demonstrate, ‘legal consciousness’ is a sufficiently general term to allow comparison across European contexts. Their empirical research reveals important differences in the ‘collective legal consciousness’ of people in different European countries. They are able to link these differences – in attitudes towards the meaning and significance of law – to general attitudes towards the political system in each country. In other projects, the process of delving further into the case-studies at hand might prompt the scholar to change or nuance the terms of comparison as the research proceeds, either fundamentally or in matters of detail. This approach is described by both Mahy and Creutzfeldt in their papers in this special issue. Mahy developed a functionalist framework for comparing labour arrangements on the basis of qualitative pilot studies, while Creutzfeldt's comparison of attitudes to European ombudsmen emerged from the answers to open-ended questions contained in more controlled surveys.

Two other papers (Kubal and Pritchard) start from a single case-study, letting the empirical material suggest the terms of comparison. Qualitative empirical research is often associated with the detailed exploration of particular cases or limited samples and these studies demonstrate their potential for the comparative scholar. Empirical complexity is only a problem for such work if the terms of comparison are assumed to be fixed at the outset. Of course, the need for flexibility and adjustment during the course of research poses its own challenges, but qualitative researchers often have to address the unexpected. How, then, have other social science researchers addressed the issue of comparison using qualitative empirical data and thick description? The debates on case-study comparison, in particular, have highlighted several issues that are relevant for the socio-legal researcher using qualitative material, as we discuss in the following section.

III. A social science perspective on qualitative comparisons

Comparative lawyers were not the first to employ a qualitative approach to comparison, paying attention to the richness of detail and the social context across a relatively small number of cases. Mathias Siems, in his most recent handbook of comparative law, seems surprised with his ‘discovery’ of ‘a number of instances where non-legal researchers have dealt with topics of a genuine comparative legal nature’ (Siems, Reference Siems2014, p. 313). This section reviews some of these debates and the critiques relevant for the project of comparison in socio-legal studies. Most of these have involved case-studies, often known as ‘small-N’ comparisons. Of course, not all comparative research involves case-studies and not all case-studies involve comparison,Footnote 3 but debates about their intersection are often informative for qualitative empirical comparison more generally.

What are known as ‘small-N’ comparisons (Lijphart, Reference Lijphart1971) have been ubiquitous in comparative social science research in sociology, politics, history and international relations. This terminology emerged in the 1970s, when large-scale comparisons (characterising the early stages of social science research, which often aimed to explain phenomena worldwide) were overshadowed by comparisons involving a small number of cases, often analysed over long periods (della Porta, Reference Della Porta, della Porta and Keating2008, p. 213). Growing attention to interpretative social science stressed the relevance of ‘thick descriptions’ of few, purposefully selected cases (Geertz, Reference Geertz1973). In the early 1990s, much of the work aimed at a limited generalisability, with middle-range or even lower-level theories, for which the specificities of the local historical and socio-political context played a crucial role (Mair, Reference Mair, Goodin and Klingemann1996). Whilst, more recently, some scholars have been advocating use of larger number of cases, due to the development of new statistical methodologies for multi-case comparison (della Porta, Reference Della Porta, della Porta and Keating2008, p. 213), those researchers who emphasise the contribution of interpretative work and qualitative approaches still value small-N, case-study comparisons. They are praised for their detailed knowledge of social processes at different points in time and considered as particularly useful for the accommodation of social contexts (della Porta, Reference Della Porta, della Porta and Keating2008, p. 211).

Discussions of this comparative work have often revolved around the starting point, whether similarity or difference, reflecting our discussion of the starting point for comparative law, in Section II, above. Some studies start with ‘the most similar cases’, as the optimal samples for comparative enquiry, suggesting that the research design in which the cases share many background or ‘systemic’ characteristics (economic, cultural or political) allows more controlled explanation of differences (Przeworski and Teune, Reference Przeworski and Teune1970, p. 32). It is suggested that, if important differences are found among otherwise similar cases, then ‘the number of factors attributable to these differences will be sufficiently small to warrant explanation in terms of those differences alone’ (Przeworski and Teune, Reference Przeworski and Teune1970, p. 32). Other studies, by contrast, start with the selection of ‘most different cases’ and focus on an in-depth comparative analysis of a few, carefully selected shared phenomena, such as social movements, especially when little is known about them. Given disparate environments, this is a particularly useful way to address certain theoretical problems, such as what we mean by a ‘social movement’, how they come about, how they develop and under what circumstances (Collier et al., Reference Collier, Mahoney, Seawright, Brady and Collier2004; Tarrow, Reference Tarrow, Brady and Collier2010).

Both approaches might be adopted by socio-legal scholars. Indeed, the well-established position of small-N comparisons in social science should encourage the project of qualitative empirical comparisons in socio-legal studies. However, during the course of a long history of conceptual developments and shifts, comparative studies based on a small number of carefully selected cases have been heavily criticised from different sides of the methodological and epistemological spectrum (Steinmetz, Reference Steinmetz2004, p. 371). Positivist critiques have doubted the scientific value of small-N comparisons by referring to their merely ‘idiographic’ nature, suggesting they are of limited, mainly descriptive, relevance (Rueschemeyer, Reference Rueschemeyer, Mahoney and Rueschemeyer2003). A more orthodox ‘interpretivist’ critique raises the issue of incommensurability of experiences and hence the impossibility of meaningful comparison between different contexts (Steinmetz, Reference Steinmetz2004). ‘Post-modernist’ critiques have questioned the extension of Western or European (implicitly cultural) categories to non-Western or ‘dominated’ social groups more generally, from the perspective of ‘imperialism’ (Lyotard, Reference Lyotard1988). These critiques all deserve attention and, by addressing them, we can refine the qualitative comparative approach in the socio-legal field and demonstrate more clearly its virtues.

To start with the ‘positivist’ critiques: scholars stressing objectivity, rigour and generalisability as the goals of social science research have criticised small-N qualitative comparisons. Theda Stocpol (Reference Stocpol and Stocpol1984), for example, argued that theoretically rigorous explanations can only be achieved through comparative research of a series of necessary and sufficient causes for a particular event. Charles Ragin, in turn, holds that comparative knowledge delivers ‘the key to understanding, explaining and interpreting’ (Reference Ragin1987, p. 6), provided that the techniques are based on Boolean algebra. The implication is that a qualitative, or small-N, approach to comparison can only describe; it cannot explain particular phenomena. Sartori summarises the broader dilemma that seems to haunt many social science comparativists: ‘case studies sacrifice generality to depth and thickness of understanding, indeed to Verstehen: one knows more and better about less (less in extension). Conversely, [large-scale] comparative studies sacrifice understanding-in-context – and of context – to inclusiveness: one knows less about more’ (Reference Sartori1991, p. 253).

As Emma Carmel (Reference Carmel1999) convincingly argues, however, this sets up a false dichotomy between contextualisation (rich description) and conceptualisation (generalisability and theory building) in comparative research. The separation of ‘understanding’ from ‘explanation’ is artificial and analytically unhelpful, as one actually presupposes the other (Carmel, Reference Carmel1999, p. 143). A comparative case-study approach engages with different contexts, which in turn facilitates the conceptualisation of core common features of a particular process, experience or event, without any loss of rigour (Rueschemeyer, Reference Rueschemeyer and Ragin1991, quoted in Carmel, Reference Carmel1999, p. 143). These conceptualisations are, in turn, embedded in the context from which they arise and thus concretely linked to particular times and places (Carmel, Reference Carmel1999, p. 143) making any theory building actually ‘for someone and for some purpose’ (Cox, Reference Cox1981). Qualitative data inform generality and explain uniqueness (Bradshaw and Wallace, Reference Bradshaw and Wallace1991), while the appreciation of context can refine the assumption or description of both similarity and difference, allowing finer comparison, even if less wide-ranging.

The interpretivist critiques of qualitative comparisons are primarily centred on the concepts of incommensurability and incomparability. Some refuse any reference to underlying causes and reject the idea of commensuration across ‘social mechanisms’ (Steinmetz, Reference Steinmetz2004, p. 384). The idea of ‘incommensurability’ suggests that ‘we have no measure, or no common measure, for something – in other words all concepts are context embedded to the point of being inescapably idiosyncratic’ (Sartori, Reference Sartori1991, p. 252). A related critique of comparison argues that ‘we are not justified in classifying two individuals or groups as examples of the same thing if they understand themselves under different descriptions’ (Steinmetz, Reference Steinmetz2004, p. 385). Steinmetz illustrates this critique by saying that ‘a comparison of, say, positivists and nonpositivists in social science, would be rejected from this position to the extent that the groups in question refuse this definition of themselves’ (Reference Steinmetz2004, p. 385). This debate within the broader social science literature strikes a familiar cord with critiques of comparison and qualitative studies of law conducted by legal scholars, discussed in the previous section (Legrand, Reference Legrand1997; Reference Legrand, Feest and Nelken2001; Demleitner, Reference Demleitner1999). But the idea of incommensurability is an extreme position – analytical concepts put forward by social science researchers to understand and compare contextually different experiences are always ‘generalizations in disguise, mental containers that amalgamate an endless flow of discrete perceptions and conceptions’ (Sartori, Reference Sartori1991, p. 252). Generalising concepts are heuristics that inform the research endeavour; indeed, they are part of the process by which we make everyday life intelligible, and this does not, of itself, undermine the resulting analysis. The aim, as anthropologists have remarked, is often adequate analytic description, rather than cross-culturally valid generalisation (Parkin, Reference Parkin and Ladislav1987, p. 12).

A related critique of incommensurability is made by post-modernists, who argue that the application of comparative concepts originating from the ‘West’ in non-Western contexts is a form of analytical imperialism, reproducing the asymmetry of power between the observer and the observed (Steinmetz, Reference Steinmetz2004, p. 387). Non-Western societies and subaltern groups are more likely to be analysed in terms of the categories of the Western and dominant cultures than vice versa (Steinmetz, Reference Steinmetz2004, p. 388). As a result, concepts like ‘civil society’, ‘the state’ or ‘feudalism’ have on too many occasions been used in comparative social science research only to show that they are lacking or only partially present in specific, non-Western settings (Chakrabarty, Reference Chakrabarty2000). Clifford and Marcus, writing about the politics of ethnography, have called upon qualitative researchers to exercise caution when applying such comparative concepts in the context of colonialism or global inequality, as they may disavow the radical difference of the non-Western social order, its unique or incommensurable aspects (Clifford and Marcus, Reference Clifford and Marcus1986). François Lyotard, in the spirit of post-modernism, goes even further and theorises this asymmetry with the concept of differend, when the regulation of epistemological conflict between the observer and the observed is ‘done in the idiom of one of the parties while the wrong suffered by the other is not signified in that idiom’ (Lyotard, Reference Lyotard1988, p. 6, quoted in Steinmetz, Reference Steinmetz2004). In legal anthropology, similar issues were raised even earlier, by Bohannan (Reference Bohannan1963), who argued against Gluckman (Reference Gluckman1965) that Western legal concepts such as ‘the reasonable man’ could not be applied in African contexts. Although the debate was inconclusive, it is now accepted that careful choice of terms can lead to fruitful comparison, enriching analysis and understanding (Holy, Reference Holy1987). Moore's (Reference Moore1973) seminal work on the semi-autonomous social field, for example, drew analogies between New York garment traders and Tanzanian farmers, while Greenhouse, Yngvesson and Engel (Reference Greenhouse, Yngvesson and Engel1994) have drawn illuminating conclusions from comparison of attitudes to law in three American towns.

We can reasonably ask whether the use of Western concepts in qualitative, small-scale comparative research has always, even often, been done unreflexively and in an ‘imperial’ manner. Although the idea of ‘state law’ might be inappropriate for the pre-colonial history of the Indian subcontinent, does this rule out the use and potential analytical applicability of all concepts originating from ‘Western’ social science? Bourdieu's works on Béarn peasants (Bourdieu, Reference Bourdieu1990), Frenchman in general (Bourdieu, Reference Bourdieu1984) and the Kabyle (Bourdieu, Reference Bourdieu1977), although concerned with practices as diverse as the system of succession in Béarn, the interior disposition of the Kabyle dwelling or the distribution of tasks and periods in the course of the Kabyle year, have made analytical use of the concepts such as ‘fecundity, succession, education, hygiene, social or economic investment, marriage, etc.’ (De Certeau, Reference De Certeau1984, p. 52).

Although Bourdieu rarely discussed the topic of comparison directly, his work was deeply comparative, concerned with different figurations of race, class and gender (Steinmetz, Reference Steinmetz2004). In Bourdieu's sociology, the Kabyle dwelling could be read as the inverse of the French school, in which he saw the ‘reproduction’ of the social hierarchies and the repetition of their ideologies (De Certeau, Reference De Certeau1984, p. 52). Bourdieu's approach relied on the use of analogy to analyse and compare these procedures and practices (De Certeau, Reference De Certeau1984, pp. 54–55). The use of analogy seems less imposing and more open to negotiation than comparison based on defined categories; it can open up a simple case-study to richer interpretation and analysis, by identifying similarity between things that are otherwise dissimilar for the purpose of explanation or clarification.

In the following section, we demonstrate how the use of analogy, like the conceptualisation of core common features and the use of generalisations as heuristics, can all be used in socio-legal comparison, by referring to the papers in this special issue.

IV. Using qualitative empirical data for comparison in socio-legal research

The goals of rich qualitative description and nuanced understanding have, we suggest, been under-appreciated in the field of comparative law. For many comparativists, the object, whether explicit or implicit, has been to identify differences as the basis for programmes of legal change and reform, as Nelken describes (in this issue). The identification of suitable indicators or terms of comparison is necessary in order to evaluate the significance of difference, for instrumental ends. But comparison can also be used to highlight the ways in which people do things in similar ways. The object here is often a more nuanced understanding of law in context, on its own terms. Some comparativists seem to dismiss the value of description and understanding as ends in themselves, denigrating such exercises as ‘butterfly collecting’ or ‘mere description’, as opposed to the practical aims of justification, legitimation and evaluation, as Mahy discusses (in this issue). But must comparison have a practical or evaluative purpose? We would suggest that, at the very least, the assessment or evaluation of laws and legal processes in very different cultural contexts must be preceded by a thorough understanding of the context on its own terms if any form of comparison is to avoid the pitfalls described by Nelken. Identifying a meaningful subject for comparison – and using qualitative data to do so – may be illuminating in its own right, although it may also provide the starting point for more evaluative or policy-oriented studies.

This special issue includes three studies in which the authors have allowed the richness of empirical detail, drawn from qualitative research, to determine the basis for their comparison. Mahy used qualitative pilot studies to identify a meaningful functional basis for her comparison of labour arrangements, which would work across national and cultural divides. The goals of employers in the restaurant sector in cities of Australia and Indonesia, she found, were sufficiently similar to allow for meaningful comparison, and her study indicates the relevance of a variety of factors – formal and informal regulation, religion and family ideals – in explaining both similarity and differences between them. The same starting point might not work elsewhere – in more traditional contexts where employer and employee relations do not take shape in the same way – but Mahy's familiarity with the cultural context of both research sites allowed her to define a meaningful subject for comparison.

Creutzfeldt set out to undertake a disciplined comparison of attitudes towards European ombudsmen, based on wide-ranging surveys containing carefully defined questions for ombudsmen users. This indicated remarkable similarity across national European borders. However, her more open-ended questions also elicited a range of discursive responses, which demonstrated striking differences in the language used by respondents in the UK and in Germany to describe their expectations. Creutzfeldt went on to explore links between the nature of these expectations and what other scholars have identified as nationally distinct legal cultures in Europe. The qualitative data elicited by the general questions of the surveys, that is, produced an unexpected and illuminating point of contrast.

Returning, then, to the question of what is to be compared, we are suggesting that robust and culturally appropriate forms of comparison may result when the terms are allowed to emerge, or are nuanced, on the basis of close familiarity with the material at hand. This is true of the study by Hertogh and Kurkchiyan (in this issue). These researchers, who have long experience of research on legal consciousness in European settings, have advanced the concept of ‘collective legal consciousness’, originally developed by Kurkchiyan (Reference Kurkchiyan2011), in order to compare attitudes towards law and its meaning in different European countries. Surveys and focus groups were carefully designed to elicit relevant views, which allowed the authors to link the respondents’ attitudes towards law to their attitudes towards politics more generally. The open-ended nature of the discussions produced material that offers a vivid description of opinions and attitudes, adding depth and richness to the authors’ conclusions about the nature of the attitudes expressed.

Mahy, Creutzfeldt, and Hertogh and Kurkchiyan have all, then, undertaken disciplined forms of comparison which are based on qualitative data-gathering. The results of their research have both shaped the terms of the comparisons they ultimately draw, as well as adding depth and richness to their conclusions. By contrast, Kubal and Pritchard (in this special issue) allowed the terms of their comparisons to emerge from a single study. This is characteristic of a social scientific, qualitative approach to comparison, whereby a detailed case-study is interpreted by analogy with (Bourdieu, Reference Bourdieu1984; De Certeau, Reference De Certeau1984, pp. 54–55), or in contrast to, other cases specifically chosen to illustrate similarity or difference (Pirie, Reference Pirie2014). This allows the researcher to explore and compare the complex ways in which people themselves think about, borrow and develop their laws, as described by Pritchard, and to make cross-cultural comparisons in unexpected places, as discussed by Kubal.

Seeking to understand and analyse the laws and legal processes surrounding migration in Russia, Kubal undertook fieldwork to obtain qualitative data, including the experiences of migrants themselves. She found parallels between the ‘spiral effect of the law’, as she analyses it in Russia, and the ‘legal violence’ noted by scholars analysing the legal situation and migrant experiences in the US. Although not exactly the same, the cases were sufficiently similar to indicate global patterns or trends. As well as being interesting in its own right, this comparative exercise helps her analyse the Russian case, avoiding the picture of exceptionalism that can result from an overly narrow ‘law in context’ approach and embedding this case in a broader view of contemporary societies.

The challenge in such cases is to identify significant similarities and to decide how to interpret them. Anthropologists seeking to analyse the data produced by ethnographic work, for example, typically search for analogies and recurrent themes in different cultural contexts, without preconceptions about what they may, or may not, find (Pirie, Reference Pirie2014). An essential element of this is deep familiarity with the studied case, allowing the researcher to assess the significance of the legal phenomena and on what terms analogies might be drawn. Can we assume that similar laws and legal practices reflect similar cultural beliefs and practices, or are they the result of legal borrowing? Should we look to political, social, historical, economic or other factors to explain similarity? The answers often lead on to other questions.

The importance of research designed to identify, rather than assume, similarities amongst legal phenomena across social and cultural divides has maybe not been sufficiently emphasised in the literature on comparative law, although it has been present in social science studies. Rich empirical work is often the basis for the discovery of unexpected similarities. Finding that people do address similar issues in very different contexts is illuminating in and of itself: noting similarity in the appreciation of, and reactions to, social problems across cultural divides tells us something about recurrent human concerns and dynamics, or those that might be associated with specific social, political and economic contexts. This often gives rise to further questions, both about differences – do similar-looking laws or legal codes, in fact, play the same role in different contexts – and about the significance of those that do not share the same patterns – can we understand more about legal borrowing by considering contexts in which it seems to be refused? The identification of significant similarity here occurs against a backdrop of difference, thus avoiding the need to make assumptions about similarity at the outset. This type of comparison is rarely controlled or deliberate. As Örücü (Reference Örücü, Örücü and Nelken2007, p. 49) notes, it generally begins with facts, rather than hypotheses, and ends in description; but, we might add, it is description that has been enriched by the comparison.

Pritchard's paper (in this issue) stands out because it involves the study of a form of comparison carried out by her informants themselves. Undertaking a longitudinal study of ideas about law and nation-building among Kosovar Albanians, she describes how the author of an early twentieth-century legal code made explicit references to classical precedents as a way of establishing legitimacy for his text and for the emergent Albanian nation. At the same time, he emphasised distinctions between Albanian and other traditions, to create a sense of nationhood. Drawing comparisons and distinctions is not just a scholarly pursuit.

V. Conclusions

Comparison amongst studies of laws in contexts can follow different trajectories: the comparison may start from an assumption of similarity – in form, purposes or context – in order to identify significant differences or it may identify significant similarity across social and cultural divides. The complexity of socio-legal studies that results from the exploration of empirical detail offers possibilities as much as challenges. This is so whether the comparison is planned and systematic or it develops out of richness of qualitative research, and whether it involves small numbers of cases or more wide-ranging comparison. For scholars undertaking controlled or deliberate comparison – typically the search for difference against an assumption of similarity – empirical detail serves to nuance the terms of comparison, as it reveals complexity and allows the researchers to reassess assumptions of sameness. By contrast, the search for – or realisation of – similarity in the context of difference is often a means of extending and deepening analysis originally focused on a particular case-study; here, empirical detail serves to highlight similarity and to identify what may or may not be significant behind an appearance of sameness. Of course, in practice, comparative work may, and regularly does, involve elements of both.

Undertaking qualitative empirical research is a means of coming to understand particular cases on their own terms. It requires the careful use of concepts that best capture the empirical reality of what is being considered and, to the extent that comparison is possible between different cases, the terms of comparison often emerge from the research itself, rather than being predefined in terms of categories or indicators. Here, the researcher's own cultural sensitivity and scholarly discipline will play a role in making sense of the gathered data.

One of the purposes of this special issue is to draw more recognition to the fact that comparison is a natural part of much good scholarship. In practice, we suggest, socio-legal scholars regularly undertake forms of comparison in different ways, often without being explicit about their methods and purposes. The diversity discussed and reflected in the many edited volumes on comparative law should not be regarded as a problem. Rather than searching for some ideal, prescriptive and methodologically precise form of comparison, the field should allow different approaches and purposes. We should make a virtue out of variety. What unites many of the projects of comparison undertaken by qualitative empirical researchers is that the points of relevant comparison are identified within the complexity of the empirical studies at hand, and they are allowed to emerge, or change, as the researcher comes to understand the facts and issues more deeply. Good comparison is often not the initial object, or it may be no more than a general aspiration or hunch that points of similarity will emerge in different cultural contexts. What is relevant and significant as the basis for comparison may not be apparent until those particular parts of the social world, in all their complexity, are understood on their own terms. This is the essence of the different approaches to comparison that are presented in the contributions to this special issue.


1 Along with calls to expand the field of comparison in socio-legal studies, Örücü (Reference Örücü, Örücü and Nelken2007, pp. 53–56) has noted an expansion of purposes. As well as programmatic and doctrinal projects, she says – such as the development of tools to transfer legal knowledge from one legal tradition to another or to explain and predict legal change – there are descriptive, analytic and explanatory projects. Practical, policy and pedagogical purposes are still pursued. See also Twining (Reference Twining and Edge2001, p. 34) and Nelken (Reference Nelken, Örücü and Nelken2007, pp. 14–15).

2 Watson's (Reference Watson1974) work on ‘legal transplants’ has attracted criticism, but the concepts of ‘imposition’ and ‘borrowing’ capture the nature of processes that have been described widely within the historical and anthropological literature (Pirie, Reference Pirie2013, pp. 176–186).

3 The review of all the social science literature on comparison lies beyond the scope of this paper.


Bohannan, Paul (1963) Social Anthropology. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.Google Scholar
Bourdieu, Pierre (1977) Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bourdieu, Pierre (1984) Distinction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
Bourdieu, Pierre (1990) The Logic of Practice. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
Bradshaw, York and Wallace, Michael (1991) ‘Informing Generality and Explaining Uniqueness: The Place of Case Studies in Comparative Research’, International Journal of Comparative Sociology 32: 154171.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bussani, Mauro and Mattei, Ugo (2012) ‘Diapositives versus Movies: The Inner Dynamics of the Law and Its Comparative Account’ in Bussani, Mauro and Mattei, Ugo (eds) Comparative Law. Cambridge: University Press, 19.Google Scholar
Carmel, Emma (1999) ‘Concepts, Context and Discourse in a Case Study’, International Journal of Social Research Methodology 2: 141150.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Chakrabarty, Dipesh (2000) Provincializing Europe. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Clifford, James and Marcus, G.E. (1986) Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
Collier, David, Mahoney, James and Seawright, Jason (2004) ‘Claiming Too Much: Warnings about Selection Bias’ in Brady, Henry E. and Collier, David (eds) Rethinking Social Inquiry: Diverse Tools, Shared Standards. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 85101.Google Scholar
Cotterrell, Roger (1997) ‘The Concept of Legal Culture’ in Nelken, David (ed.) Comparing Legal Cultures. Aldershot: Dartmouth, 1331.Google Scholar
Cotterrell, Roger (1998) ‘Why Must Legal Ideas Be Interpreted Sociologically?’, Journal of Law and Society 25: 171192.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Cotterrell, Roger (2006) ‘Comparative Law and Legal Culture’ in Reimann, Mathias and Zimmermann, Reinhard (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 710737.Google Scholar
Cotterrell, Roger (2007) ‘Is it Bad to Be Different? Comparative Law and the Appreciation of Diversity’ in Örücü, Esin and Nelken, David (eds) Comparative Law: A Handbook. Oxford: Hart, 133154.Google Scholar
Cox, Robert (1981) ‘Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies 10: 126155.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Dannemann, Gerhard (2006) ‘Comparative Law: Study of Similarities or Differences?’ in Reimann, Mathias and Zimmermann, Reinhard (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 383420.Google Scholar
De Certeau, Michel (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
Della Porta, Donatella (2008) ‘Comparative Analysis: Case-Oriented Versus Variable-Oriented Research’ in della Porta, Donatella and Keating, Michael (eds) Approaches and Methodologies in the Social Science: A Pluralist Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 198222.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Demleitner, Nora (1999) ‘Combating Legal Ethnocentrism: Comparative Law Sets Boundaries’, Arizona State Law Journal 31: 737762.Google Scholar
Frankenberg, Gunter (2006) ‘Comparing Constitutions: Ideas, Ideals, and Ideology – Toward a Layered Narrative’, International Journal of Constitutional Law 4: 439459.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Geertz, Clifford (1973) The Interpretation of Cultures . New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
Glenn, Patrick (2000) Legal Traditions of the World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Glenn, Patrick (2006) ‘Comparative Legal Families and Comparative Legal Traditions’ in Reimann, Mathias and Zimmermann, Reinhard (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 421440.Google Scholar
Gluckman, Max (1965) The Ideas in Barotse Jurisprudence. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
Graziadei, Michele (2006) ‘Comparative Law as the Study of Transplants and Receptions’ in Reimann, Mathias and Zimmermann, Reinhard (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 441475.Google Scholar
Greenhouse, Carol, Yngvesson, Barbara and Engel, David (1994) Law and Community in Three American Towns. Cornell: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
Holy, Ladislav (ed.) (1987) Comparative Anthropology. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.Google Scholar
Kurkchiyan, Marina (2011) ‘Perception of Law and Social Order: A Cross-National Comparison of Collective Legal Consciousness’, Wisconsin International Law Journal 29: 366392.Google Scholar
Legrand, Pierre (1997) ‘The Impossibility of “Legal Transplants”’, Maastricht Journal of European and Comparative Law 4: 111124.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Legrand, Pierre (2001) ‘What Legal Transplants?’ in Feest, Johannes and Nelken, David (eds) Adapting Legal Cultures, Oxford: Hart Publishing, 5569.Google Scholar
Lijphart, Arend (1971) ‘Comparative Politics and the Comparative Method’, American Political Science Review 65: 682693.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lyotard, Jean-Francois (1988) The Differend: Phrases in Dispute. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
Mair, Peter (1996) ‘Comparative Politics: An Overview’ in Goodin, Robert E. and Klingemann, Hans-Dieter (eds) A New Handbook of Political Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 309335.Google Scholar
Menski, Werner (2006) Comparative Law in a Global Context: The Legal Systems of Asia and Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Merry, Sally Engle (1990) Getting Justice and Getting Even: Legal consciousness Among Working-Class Americans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
Michaels, Ralf (2006) ‘The Functional Method of Comparative Law’ in Reimann, Mathias and Zimmermann, Reinhard (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 340382.Google Scholar
Moore, Sally Falk (1973) ‘Law and Social Change: The Semi-Autonomous Social Field as an Appropriate Subject of Study’, Law and Society Review 7: 719746.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Nelken, David (2007) ‘Comparative Law and Comparative Legal Studies’ in Örücü, Esin and Nelken, David (eds) Comparative Law: A Handbook. Oxford: Hart, 342.Google Scholar
Örücü, Esin (2007) ‘Developing Comparative Law’ in Örücü, Esin and Nelken, David (eds) Comparative Law: A Handbook. Oxford: Hart, 4365.Google Scholar
Palmer, Vernon Valentine (2005) ‘From Lerotholi to Lando: Some Examples of Comparative Law Methodology’, American Journal of Comparative Law 53: 261290.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Parkin, David (1987) ‘Comparison as the Search for Continuity’ in Ladislav, Holy (ed.) Comparative Anthropology. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 5269.Google Scholar
Pirie, Fernanda (2013) The Anthropology of Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Pirie, Fernanda (2014) ‘Comparison in the Anthropology and History of Law’, Journal of Comparative Law 9: 88107.Google Scholar
Przeworski, Adam and Teune, Henry (1970) The Logic of Comparative Social Inquiry. New York, London, Toronto, Sydney: Wiley-Interscience.Google Scholar
Ragin, Charles (1987) The Comparative Method. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.Google Scholar
Reimann, Mathias (2002) ‘The Progress and Failure of Comparative Law in the Second Half of the Twentieth Century’, American Journal of Comparative Law 50: 671700.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Riles, Annelise (1999) ‘Wigmore's Treasure Box: Comparative Law in the Era of Information’, Harvard International Law Journal 40: 221283.Google Scholar
Roberts, Simon (2005) ‘After Government: On Representing Law without the State’, Modern Law Review 68: 124.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Rueschemeyer, Dietrich (1991) ‘Different Methods – Contradictory Results? Research on Development and Democracy’ in Ragin, Charles (ed.) Issues and Alternatives in Comparative Social Research. Leiden: Brill, 938.Google Scholar
Rueschemeyer, Dietrich (2003) ‘Can One or a Few Cases Yield Theoretical Gains?’ in Mahoney, James and Rueschemeyer, Dietrich (eds) Comparative Historical Analysis in the Social Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 305336.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Sartori, Giovanni (1991) ‘Comparing and Miscomparing’, Journal of Theoretical Politics 3: 243257.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Siems, Mathias (2014) Comparative Law. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Steinmetz, George (2004) ‘Odious Comparisons: Incommensurability, the Case Study and “Small-N's” in Sociology’, Sociological Theory 22: 371400.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Stocpol, Theda (1984) ‘Emerging Agendas and Recurrent Strategies in Historical Sociology’ in Stocpol, Theda (ed.) Vision and Method in Historical Sociology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 356391.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Tarrow, Sidney (2010) ‘Bridging the Quantitative-Qualitative Divide’ in Brady, Henry E. and Collier, David (eds) Rethinking Social Inquiry: Diverse Tools, Shared Standards. London: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 101110.Google Scholar
Twining, William (2001) ‘Comparative Law and Legal Theory: The Country and Western Tradition’ in Edge, Iian (ed.) Comparative Law in Global Perspective. New York: Transnational Publishers, 2176.Google Scholar
Twining, William (2007) ‘Globalization and Comparative Law’ in Örücü, Esin and Nelken, David (eds) Comparative Law: A Handbook. Oxford: Hart, 6990.Google Scholar
Watson, Alan (1974) Legal Transplants: An Approach to Comparative Law. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.Google Scholar
Whitman, James Q. (2003) ‘The Neo-Romantic Turn’ in Legrand, Pierre and Munday, Roderick (eds) Comparative Legal Studies: Traditions and Transitions. Cambridge: University Press, 312344.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Zweigert, Konrad and Kötz, Hein (1998) An Introduction to Comparative Law (trans. Weir, T.), 3rd edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar