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  • Print publication year: 2009
  • Online publication date: February 2010

8 - David Engel and “The Oven Bird's Song”


Understanding litigiousness involves many perspectives on how societies generate, shape, and process disputes. Whereas some may begin the study of disputing with the law and the formal institutions charged with implementing it, or what happens “in court,” a long tradition of Law and Society scholarship has emphasized the importance of seeing how cultural practices give life and meaning to the law. Though some of this scholarship has come from anthropology, much of it has been produced by scholars from other disciplinary backgrounds who have been attracted to ethnographic methods and the promise of understanding legality through the eyes of “regular” people – not lawyers or judges but the ordinary people who experience “law.”

Like other scholars in this collection, such as Carol Greenhouse (Chapter 10), Sally Engle Merry (Chapter 12), and the team of Patty Ewick and Susan Silbey (Chapter 19), David Engel sought to explore legal consciousness as it existed in the narratives and lives of such people. As he describes it, the route of this intellectual approach stems from a personal journey, one that helped open his eyes to his own country. Unlike some ethnographic studies, however, he conducted his research without full-time immersion in the community he was studying. This interview explores some of the substitutions and strategies Engel made to seek his desired depth of understanding, and some of the challenges that inhere to the approach. Both in the substance of the article and in the research process itself, we find the temporal dimension – for the latter, the time that Engel spent in the field and in mulling over the data. The product of that gestation was a memorable article with a memorable title.

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