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Monday, September 17, 2012

Qualitative Study in Law and Society

I think it was Karl Marx in "The German Ideology" who said that ideas should be explained from "material practice," not the other way around, in one of his not-so-veiled direct attacks on Kantian metaphysics and the abstract rational self that had characterized young Kantians and young Hegelians in Germany. The study of those "material practice[s]" is what sociologists do, but too often -- especially after "Freakonomics" and Malcolm Gladwell's successful popularization of quantitative sociological study -- some types of sociological analysis get a bad rap and, sometimes, unjustly so. Consider, for example, a much maligned design of socio-historical research, the narrative, and what lawyers and legal academics can learn from it.

I am not suggesting that narrative does not deserve its critics. The notion that we can understand events simply by putting them in chronological order is laughable. Otherwise, we would imply causation where there is only temporal order. But, narrative -- the study of how a single thing becomes an event of social importance -- can be a place to begin our study and can shed light on the rational or perverse incentives of laws that govern culture.

The robust sociological literature on lynching in the American South from 1880 to 1930 includes a fair amount of narrative analysis. In 1993, the sociologist Larry Griffin published a piece in the American Journal of Sociology that, among other things, traced the narrative history of how one dispute became a lynching in a particularly bloody county in a particularly bloody time in the Deep South. He never suggested that a step-by-step temporal approach -- a botched sale of moonshine, a black seller, a disagreement over the price, a drunk white customer, a physical altercation, an allegedly willfully blind sheriff, a posse gathering, a manhunt, a tip off from a rival black moonshiner, capture, attack, murder, and a revenge killing -- tells the whole story, but, at a minimum, it gives us a better picture of "what is a lynching" than simply saying that there is a general correlation between a drop in the real price of cotton and an increase in lynchings (Beck & Tolnay 1991).

In my dissertation, I study the flow of culture -- music, pictures, memes, jokes -- on the Internet and argue that the copyright regime governing the flow of the proprietary parts of that culture should reflect a more accurate sociological understanding of the creation and flow of cultural artifacts. In one section that, admittedly, I have yet to write, I will tell the story of how a thing becomes a meme online. Media reports tend to be satisfied with saying that Susan Boyle's "Britain's Got Talent" video "went viral" or that Texts from Hillary (http://textsfromhillaryclinton.tumblr.com) "went viral" shortly after two DC staffers saw an amazing picture of the secretary of state working on her blackberry. Things don't just "go viral" much in the same way that artists don't just magically conjure cultural products from the tips of their fingers. In fact, how something goes from a single incident of creative expression (whether derivative or not) can point us to areas of further study and paint a better picture of the creation of culture in the physical world and online. 

This not only matters to Internet marketers, but also to those of us thinking about a copyright regime for the Internet Age. I am about to submit a National Science Foundation grant application to study the role of users in the spread and creation of culture online. Stay tuned...

Posted by Ari Ezra Waldman on September 17, 2012 at 08:50 AM | Permalink

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Thanks for your grateful students blogs informations.

Posted by: Ayyapillai | Sep 17, 2012 10:15:49 AM

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