Focused Ethnography: A Methodological Approach for Engaged Legal Scholarship

Tonya Brito, Daanika Gordon and David J. Pate, Jr., Focused Ethnography: A Methodological Approach for Engaged Legal Research, in From the Ground Up: Legal Scholarship for the Urban Core, ed. Peter Enrich & Rashmi Dyal-Chand (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2019)

Univ. of Wisconsin Legal Studies Research Paper No. 1583

39 Pages Posted: 6 Mar 2020

See all articles by Tonya L. Brito

Tonya L. Brito

University of Wisconsin Law School; Institute for Legal Studies; Institute for Research on Poverty

Daanika Gordon

University of Wisconsin - Madison

David Pate Jr.

University of Wisconsin - Madison

Date Written: February 26, 2020

Abstract

Our study investigates two primary questions: How do lawyers matter? And are there more limited forms of legal assistance that provide a suitable alternative to attorney representation? We seek to enhance understanding of how attorney representation and other more limited forms of legal assistance affect civil court proceedings for low income litigants. We examine how different legal assistance models shape legal access in the context of child support enforcement proceedings. Broadly, our study involves an in-depth exploration of the legal processes in these cases, focusing on court interactions and examining them from multiple perspectives and over an extended period of time. This approach explores the meaning people draw from legal interactions as well as the complexity of the relationship between process and outcomes. An earlier publication from this project, which draws from both our ethnographic and interview data, provides an empirical exploration of racialized access to justice issues within family courts, particularly the consequences that result from the ostensibly color-blind manner in which the proceedings are carried out.

There are a variety of different methodological approaches researchers can employ when gathering empirical data. In this chapter we present focused ethnography as a qualitative empirical approach that is well suited to legal scholars studying justice-related problems in urban settings. Focused ethnography is an effective methodology for engaged scholarship addressing the legal mechanisms and challenges underlying urban poverty. We begin by explaining why ethnography is a desirable choice for legal researchers studying these issues. The chapter then introduces focused ethnography as a type of ethnography, describes its elements, explains how it compares to immersive ethnography, and examines existing studies utilizing focused ethnography.

We then describe the elements of focused ethnography through a detailed discussion of the methodological choices we made in designing and implementing our access to justice empirical project, a study that investigates a widespread problem impacting low income families in the urban core. By so doing, we describe the kinds of research questions, sampling strategies, data collection and analysis methods, and techniques of evaluating rigor characterizing focused ethnography. We also discuss the practical constraints that shaped decisions about methods. In providing this concrete example, we hope to demonstrate how legal scholars can apply this methodological tool to their own research. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the important ethical issues that need to be anticipated in all phases of the research process in ethnographic studies of legal issues impacting the urban core and individuals living in poverty. By describing the utility of focused ethnography, particularly in the courtroom setting, and emphasizing the unique ethics issues that exist in this field of research, we hope that this synthetic work provides a useful road map for legal scholars who are interested in engaged research addressing the intractable problems of the urban core.

Keywords: low income, access to justice, attorney representation, legal assistance, child support, enforcement proceedings, family courts, family law, race and the law, racial issues in court

Suggested Citation

Brito, Tonya L. and Gordon, Daanika and Pate, David, Focused Ethnography: A Methodological Approach for Engaged Legal Scholarship (February 26, 2020). Tonya Brito, Daanika Gordon and David J. Pate, Jr., Focused Ethnography: A Methodological Approach for Engaged Legal Research, in From the Ground Up: Legal Scholarship for the Urban Core, ed. Peter Enrich & Rashmi Dyal-Chand (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2019) ; Univ. of Wisconsin Legal Studies Research Paper No. 1583. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3544885

Tonya L. Brito (Contact Author)

University of Wisconsin Law School ( email )

975 Bascom Mall
Madison, WI 53706
United States

Institute for Legal Studies ( email )

Madison
United States

Institute for Research on Poverty ( email )

1180 Observatory Drive
Madison, WI 53706
United States

Daanika Gordon

University of Wisconsin - Madison ( email )

716 Langdon Street
Madison, WI 53706-1481
United States

David Pate

University of Wisconsin - Madison ( email )

716 Langdon Street
Madison, WI 53706-1481
United States

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