The Relationship between Empirical Legal Studies and Doctrinal Legal Research

10 Pages Posted: 16 Feb 2021

See all articles by Gareth T. Davies

Gareth T. Davies

Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Department Transnational Legal

Multiple version iconThere are 2 versions of this paper

Date Written: September 15, 2020


This article considers how empirical legal studies (ELS) and doctrinal legal research (DLR) interact. Rather than seeing them as competitors that are methodologically independent and static, it suggests that they are interdependent activities, which may each be changed by interaction with the other, and that this change brings both opportunities and threats. For ELS, the article argues that DLR should properly be understood as part of its theoretical framework, yet in practice little attention is given to doctrine in empirical work. Paying more attention to DLR and legal frames generally would help ELS meet the common criticism that it is undertheorised and excessively policy oriented. On the other hand, an embrace of legal thinking, particularly of critical legal thinking, might lead to loss of status for ELS in policy circles and mainstream social science. For DLR, ELS offers a chance for it to escape the threat of insular sterility and irrelevance and to participate in a founded commentary on the world. The risk, however, is that in tailoring legal analysis to what can be empirically researched legal scholars become less analytically ambitious and more safe, and their traditionally important role as a source of socially relevant critique is weakened. Inevitably, in offering different ways of moving to normative conclusions about the law, ELS and DLR pose challenges to each other, and meeting those challenges will require sometimes uncomfortable self-reflection.

Keywords: empirical legal studies, legal research methods, doctrinal legal research, new legal realism, critical legal studies, law and policy

Suggested Citation

Davies, Gareth T., The Relationship between Empirical Legal Studies and Doctrinal Legal Research (September 15, 2020). Erasmus Law Review, Vol. 13, No. 2, 2020, Available at SSRN:

Gareth T. Davies (Contact Author)

Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Department Transnational Legal ( email )


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