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Survey of empirical research on constitutions, constitutionalism, and constitutionalization

For readers who might be interested in a brief overview and critical assessment of the empirical literature on constitutions, constitutionalism, and constitutionalization, may I suggest a new paper, entitled simply "Constitutions," in which I focus on a couple of topics with potentially considerable implications for normative constitutional theory and offer some thoughts on where the field stands from a methodological perspective and how it might progress from here. The paper is available here.

Here is the abstract:

This chapter from the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Empirical Legal Research offers an overview and critical assessment of the current state of empirical research on constitutions, constitutionalism, and constitutionalization. First, it describes how empirical research on “constitutions” has evolved into two distinct bodies of literature focused on different phenomena. Scholars from different disciplines have pursued distinct research agendas and favored different methodological approaches. De facto or “small-c” constitutions - meaning the collections of rules, practices, and understandings, written or unwritten, that describe how state power is actually allocated and exercised - have been the subject of a vast amount of social science research, much of which exhibits a quantitative or statistical bent. By contrast, the study of de jure or “large-c” constitutions - namely, formal legal documents that proclaim their own status as fundamental or higher law - has been largely the domain of legal scholars, who have tended to favor a qualitative, case-study approach.

The chapter next surveys the empirical literature on two topics that are, or ought to be, of considerable interest to those who study large-c constitutions. The first is that of whether constitutions matter. There is an enormous body of normative constitutional scholarship on the question of what kinds of institutional arrangements and personal rights and freedoms should be written into large-c constitutions. Much of this scholarship rests upon the implicit premise that formal constitutions are not mere parchment barriers but instead do in fact shape and constrain the structure and behavior of governments. This premise, however, finds only weak support in the existing empirical literature, particularly with respect to the efficacy of written rights guarantees.

The second topic of interest is that of the relationship between judicialization and constitutionalization. Empirical scholars have in recent years paid increasing attention to the related phenomena of judicialization, or the expansion of judicial policymaking at the expense of other government institutions, and constitutionalization, or the process by which formal legal instruments (primarily large-c constitutions) become effective sources of constraint upon state power and government action. These two phenomena are symbiotic. By characterizing policy questions as constitutional, courts claim exclusive authority over those questions and thus expand their power to make policy. In doing so, however, they also extend and reinforce the efficacy of the constitution. Thus, to explain how and why judicial power expands is also to illuminate one way in which large-c constitutions become effective as a practical matter.

The chapter concludes by discussing the methodological challenges faced by scholars who wish to do empirical research on constitutions, large-c and small-c alike, and by exploring possible solutions. These challenges boil down to the problems of inadequate data and causal complexity, which plague all of social science but are, for a variety of reasons, especially pronounced in the context of constitutions. Neither of the methodological approaches most commonly employed by empirical constitutional scholars - namely, case studies and statistical analysis - can by itself satisfactorily address these challenges. One solution is to practice methodological pluralism: by employing a combination of approaches, scholars can use the strengths of one approach to compensate for the weaknesses of the other. Another solution is to investigate innovative approaches such as laboratory experimentation and computer simulation. The chapter offers examples of how computer simulation, and agent-based modeling in particular, can be used to study constitutional phenomena that are difficult to investigate using traditional techniques. Given both the formidable methodological obstacles that constitutional scholars face and the limitations of the techniques that they currently use, such methodological possibilities demand greater attention.


  1. Just a quick note. Constitutionalization is just one species of judicialization. By definition, judicialization is the process through which the rulings and modes of reasoning of courts comes to influence the decisionmaking of non-judicial officials and power-holders. Rulings of constitutional and supreme courts that judicialize policymaking are also bolstering the authority, or effectiveness, of the constitutional law within those policy processes.

    Alec Stone Sweet
    Yale Law School

  2. Good stuff. I agree with Alec on the various species of judicialization with constitutionalization being only one of them, and would point to my chapter on the judicialization of politics in the Oxford Handbook of Law & Politics (OUP 2008), reprinted in the Oxford Handbook of Political Science (OUP 2009), where various levels and types of judicialization are outlined. David: very cool, original ideas on computer simulated constitutional design.

  3. Alec, Ran - Thanks for the comments. I don't disagree that constitutionalization is one form of judicialization. I draw on both Alec and Ran's work to explain why judicialization and constitutionalization are symbiotic. Not synonymous. But, symbiotic.

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