Using adaptive theory and multi-modal case study methods in environmental law research

Cameron Holley, Amanda Kennedy, Alice Bleby, Carley Bartlett

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (Book)Researchpeer-review


Adaptive theory (AT) is an iterative strategy of inquiry that uses pre-existing theory to guide a study while simultaneously generating new theory from data analysis. Collective case studies involve jointly studying several cases to better understand or theorise about a still larger collection of cases. In this chapter, we demonstrate that, when compared to purely doctrinal legal research, AT and collective case studies provide a complementary empirical research methodology that can capture the diversity of contexts, actors, actants, scales and rules that comprise environmental problems and enable findings that more closely represent the broader phenomenon of natural resource governance writ large. We illustrate this approach through three studies of different environmental problems: legal subjecthood for nature in Aotearoa New Zealand and the United States; the relationship between law and science in the context of P.F.A.S. (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) contamination in Australia; and the regulatory challenges of governing the food-energy-water nexus concerning unconventional coal seam gas development. These studies confirm that AT and collective case studies provide opportunities to interrogate the interactions between law and its context, close the gaps, and develop new connections between existing theories and realities. However, they also highlight challenges concerning time investment, the pragmatic and logistical limits of empirical research, and generalisability. Our reflections expand on the resources available to enthusiastic empirical scholars in law and encourage legal scholarship to seek out empirical approaches more seriously when attempting to comprehend questions of environmental law.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationNon-doctrinal Research Methods in Environmental Law
EditorsPaul Martin, Solange Teles da Silva, Marcia Leuzinger, Miriam Verbeek, Andrew Lawson
Place of PublicationCheltenham UK
PublisherEdward Elgar Publishing
Number of pages24
ISBN (Electronic)9781803922768
ISBN (Print)9781803922751
Publication statusPublished - 2023
Externally publishedYes


  • Adaptive Theory
  • Collective case studies
  • Empirical methods
  • Non-doctrinal research
  • Environmental law
  • Natural resource management

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