The Selection Bias in Court Records: Settlement and Trial in Eighteenth Century Kastamonu
Court records are used extensively in historical research. Preserved as summaries of daily legal proceedings, they give historians a unique opportunity of access to the information about the names, personal characteristics, and socio-economic status of individuals and about the laws, local customs, and legal institutions that were used in resolving disputes. Although researchers have thoroughly discussed the limitations of these records in accurately reflecting court proceedings, the problem of selection bias has not been systematically studied. Since litigants would likely settle disputes in which one side is likely to be a clear winner, the cases that go to trial would likely be the difficult and uncertain ones for which there is greater disagreement, altogether comprising a non-random and unrepresentative subset of all disputes. We study the selection bias in Ottoman courts in the town of Kastamonu in northern Anatolia, from the late seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries. We separate disputes by type and study the distribution of court participants according to size, gender, and religious and socioeconomic status. We run regression analysis to determine the factors affecting the likelihood of cases being tried in court. Our results indicate that the cases that wound up in court were selected systematically. If the selection bias is ignored, research based on Ottoman court records may be seriously flawed in its ability to yield general conclusions.
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