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Mario L. Barnes | Critical Race Narratives, Qualitative Methods and Meaning-Making in Legal Research

January 22, 2020

Mario L. Barnes is the Toni Rembe Dean of the University of Washington School of Law and a nationally recognized scholar for his research on the legal and social implications of race and gender, primarily in the areas of employment, education, criminal and military law. Dean Barnes joined UW from UC Irvine School of Law, where he served as professor and senior associate dean for academic affairs and taught courses in criminal justice, constitutional law, critical theories, and national security law. Prior to his academic career, Barnes spent 12 years on active duty in the U.S. Navy, including service as a prosecutor, defense counsel, special assistant U.S. attorney, and on the commission that investigated the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen. He retired from the Navy in 2013, after 23 years of combined active and reserve service.

Socio-Legal Research & Critical Theories

Dr. Mario Barnes focused on bridging the academic communities focused on socio-legal methods and those focused on critical theories, such as critical race theory and feminist approaches, to further an understanding of the social implications of the law. He provided an overview of the two disparate approaches, discussing how they engaged with one another and the kinds of resistance they faced. Ultimately, Barnes spoke about the creation of the Empirical Methods and CRT (e-CRT) Project, focused on bringing together social science research methods and critical theories.

Participants from various disciplines across UW joined in a discussion with Dr. Mario Barnes on meaning-making in legal research.

Barnes traced the historical origin of these schools of thought, starting with legal formalism as the previously prevailing approach to law. He then explained that legal realists pushed back against formalism, voicing concerns that legal rules alone do not predict outcomes (i.e., the law on the books is not the same as the law in action). He explained that legal realists encouraged a more thoughtful way of engaging with the law by encouraging its empirical study, and so helping to create the space for the socio-legal perspective to emerge. The socio-legal perspective is a contextualized approach that says you cannot divorce law from the context from which it has been interpreted. In response to this, the Law and Society Association (LSA) was founded in 1964 as an intellectual home for many socio-legal scholars, and it encouraged interdisciplinary approaches to the empirical study of law.

At the same time as the LSA emerged, there was a push back against legal realism by Critical Legal Studies (CLS) (1970s), emphasizing that legal realism was not speaking enough about justice, but rather only about rights. Additionally, there was pushback from Critical Race and Feminist Legal Theory (1980s) because CLS was seen as overlooking the voices of women and people of color. This approach introduced the ideas of intersectionality into the legal system, unconscious bias, anti-essentialism, and interest convergence.

Within the critical approaches, Barnes explained that narrative methods like autobiography, storytelling, or allegory become important to “re-story” the past and “re-imagine” the future. The critical approaches saw social science as using a positivist approach, and CRT wanted to do large scale structural interventions and not be pushed into social science methods. Barnes also explained the CRT argument that statistics had bee

Dr. Mario Barnes discussed the Empirical Methods and CRT (e-CRT) Project, focused on bringing together social science research methods and critical theories.

n widely misused as a cover for racism. By and large, the thinking was that social science research was treating race in an overly simplified way, and the scholarship that dealt with race was minimal and constituted very little of the published peer-reviewed literature. Socio-legal scholarship, in turn, had a critical response to the narrative techniques, claiming that the narrative approach is problematic because it is unreliable, non-verifiable, and potentially in opposition to truth (seeing truth as something that is only seen in one way).

Creation of Empirical Methods and Critical Race Theory Project (e-CRT)

Barnes argued that in 2008 there was a movement to find a meaningful way to bridge the gap between the qualitative methods in the social sciences and critical race theories and feminist work. He explained that both groups were and are trying to explore the relationship between law and everyday life and that qualitative methods give us the ability to build on this. This led to the creation of the Empirical Methods and CRT (e-CRT) Project. This project encourages critical scholars to introduce rigorous social science methods into their work and advance more critical theories into socio-legal scholarship. As the collaboration between CRT scholars and the legal discipline grows, e-CRT encourages forming projects in which, from the outset, people think of each other as equals and collaborate. Some examples of this work include Pulled Over (Epp, et al., 2014), American Bar Foundation Civil Rights in Their Own Voices: Situated Justice (Nielsen, et al., 2012), Cheating Welfare (Gustafson, 2011), Blinded by Sight (Obasogie, 2013), and Unequal Profession (Deo, 2019). Barnes highlighted that this is a significant shift in legal analysis and that legal research no longer thinks of projects with race and gender as an aside, but rather as more explicitly core to the projects.

A Robust Discussion

Participants at the Qualitative Methods talk discussed the role of ethnographies in the different approaches. Barnes expounded that some CRT methods were similar to those used by qualitative researchers, such as interviews. Ethnography posed a challenge for traditional social science methods because of presumed rule structures about how social science methods have to be done. He also emphasized that sometimes CRT prefers autobiography and other narrative histories.