Irene van Oorschot - Sociology

Opening the ‘black box’ of judicial decision-making

Irene van Oorschot offers a practice-based perspective on the exercise of criminal Law

Irene van Oorschot’s research project concentrates on sentencing practices of ‘police-judges’ (Dutch: politierechters) in a Dutch criminal court. Using ethnographic methods, she aims to approach sentencing as a socially and materially embedded practice. 

From an early age, Irene was always looking for explanations for all manner of things that are taken for granted in society, such as for instance inequalities between kinds of people. Having obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, she decided to make the switch from quantitative to qualitative research for her research-based Master’s degree. An ethnographic study of qat consumption in Sana’a, Yemen, was her first foray into ethnography, but she immediately knew she had found her métier.

“This was the form in which I wanted to conduct research,” Irene says. “Ethnography enables you to follow practices in the here-and-now. It can throw light on dimensions that can disappear in a lot of research within the social sciences if only experimental settings are used, or in surveys with pre-structured response categories.” 

Shift of focus

Within her PhD research, she also has the scope to follow up on her interest in ethnography. “Initially, the project involved a qualitative research method based on interviews,” Irene reveals. 

“My central argument is that you have to take the methods these judges use seriously to create order in this complexity.”

“But I have been able to give this a more explicitly ethnographic character. By studying the practices of police-judges ‘in the wild’, I discovered that a number of ideas sociologists have about the exercise of criminal law, in fact, represent an enormous reduction of the complexity of the day-to-day practice of exercising justice. My central argument is that you have to take the methods these judges use seriously to create order in this complexity. I then link this to the idea that objects – files, for example! – are major participants, or actors, in such practices.”

 ‘Sense-Making’: judges and their files

Irene’s research focuses particularly on how police judges use the criminal file in their sense-making processes. By observing their file work – where do their eyes linger when reading, what do they underline and why – and listening to judges’ comments on the case files, she traces how a case unfolds and is constructed in real time.

These files are then constantly challenged and used in different ways during the hearing; by the lawyers, the public prosecutor and the suspect. Here, the stories in the file are weighed up – but stories are also told about the file. 

Micro level

Irene: “It is extremely interesting to see criminal cases put together, decided and closed at the micro level. By following a particular practice in this way, you complicate the reductionism of a lot of sociological and more broadly shared ideas about how the criminal justice system works.”


By following these practices very closely, Irene hopes to generate insights into how exactly the justice system works. “My analysis can also help give nuance to the debate on the justice system within society,” she explains.

“From the right wing of the political spectrum, we hear the accusation that judges do not punish sufficiently harshly. And in the critical, sociological literature there is the dominant idea that the criminal justice system is a place where class-based justice is meted out, and where ethnic inequalities are reproduced.” 

“My research can contribute to revealing nuances and making these dominant ideas about justice more complex.”

“But in actual fact, both approaches ignore everything that makes the criminal justice system unique and exceptional: the administration of criminal justice is not simply, or only, ‘politics by other means’. By looking at factors such as what is relevant for judges in their sense-making and sentencing decisions, you can show that there are more complex reasons why judges do what they do. My research can contribute to revealing nuances and making these dominant ideas about justice more complex.”

Guest contributor

A PhD is a full-time job, but nevertheless Irene finds time alongside this for a number of extra-curricular activities. “Among other things, I am a guest contributor to the Dutch, peer-reviewed journal Sociologie (Sociology), for a special issue on Actor Network-Theory. The guest contributors are people from all kinds of different disciplines. This is a great opportunity to get to know the field in the Netherlands better.”

Form experiments

She also recently gave a lecture in literary café Perdu (Amsterdam) on the political possibilities of irony. Irene: “It isn’t directly related to my research, but it is making use of my academic background in the broadest sense. It is a chance to experiment with form and to investigate how you want to engage different kinds of audience.” 

The diversity within the Sociology research group also helps in this search for the right form. “It isn’t the case that there is a fixed programme that everyone follows; not all PhD students follow the same courses or write the same kinds of articles. This diversity is inspirational; it offers you the scope and the freedom to find the form that best suits you and your research.”


On February 2nd 2018, Irene van Oorschot successfully (cum laude) defended her PhD thesis on 'Ways of Case-Making'.