Integrating Diverse Theories for Public Health Law Research
Public Health Law Research Methods Monograph Series, Forthcoming
31 Pages Posted: 28 Jul 2012
Date Written: July 2, 2012
Theoretically grounded research illuminating mechanisms of legal effect has at least three important benefits for public health law research and practice: Defining the phenomena to be observed, supporting causal inference, and guiding reform and implementation. The choice of what theory or theories to draw upon is a practical one based on research questions and designs, types of law or regulatory approach under study, and state of current knowledge about the matter being investigated. PHLR researchers can draw upon a variety of theories developed by socio-legal scholars to explain how laws are put into practice and how they influence environments and behaviors. Similarly, it is possible to integrate laws within general social and behavioral theories. And it is in fact possible to do both at the same time. These methods make it possible to substantially improve the validity, utility and credibility of health research on effects of laws and legal practices.
Compliance theories explain why people obey the law. The threshold question in any compliance theory is whether people actually know what the law is. Both deterrence and economic theorists posit that people will behave rationally given what they know about the law and the consequences of disobedience. Labeling theory posits that criminal law works by defining proscribed behaviors as “wrong” and people who engage in it as “criminals.” Procedural justice theory focuses on the internal motivation to comply, and how it is influenced by the perceived fairness of legal authorities. In the public health tradition, law is often used to change social and physical environments to reduce risky exposures, rather than to directly regulate individual behavior itself.
Rather than construct the question in a framework of how law influences behavior, a researcher also could start with a general behavioral theory in which law is simply added as one of many factors, and not be treated as the preeminent effect to study. The theory of triadic influences (TTI) presents a detailed scheme for understanding the many factors that produce an intention to behave in a certain way and, ultimately, the behavior itself. Economics places the law and the phenomena it regulates within a framework of markets. Finally, research in the law and society tradition provides powerful theoretical and research methods for getting at how both legal agents and legal subjects understand their roles, their ability to act within a legal framework, and the nature of that legal framework itself.
Keywords: public health law research, phlr, research methods
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