Law School conference celebrates a seminal piece of scholarship

Published October 13, 2015

Why would an article about personal injury and contract litigation be titled “The Oven Bird’s Song”?  

In this classic article, published over 30 years ago, SUNY Buffalo Law Professor David Engel invoked Robert Frost’s poem as a metaphor for people’s use of the law as a response to their perceptions of social change. The article’s memorable title underscores the enduring value of this signature contribution to the law and society movement.

The product of intensive fieldwork, Engel’s article revealed the attitudes that residents of a rural Illinois community brought to cultural issues regarding personal injury, dispute resolution, social change and law. He spent years interviewing litigants and a wide cross-section of community members, as well as mining local court records. Linking residents’ firsthand accounts with a study of court data, Engel created a landmark ethnographic study.

On Oct. 23, socio-legal scholars from around the world will discuss this article at a conference to be held at SUNY Buffalo Law School’s Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy. They will discuss the intellectual context in which it was written, assess its thesis in terms of institutional actors, discuss the opportunities and challenges of teaching the article, and explore its implications for future research on law and society.

Engel has continued to study how people respond to injuries through his research on Thailand and in his latest book, The Myth of the Litigious American: Or, Why We Don’t Sue, forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press. He will conclude the daylong event with brief comments about “The Oven Bird’s Song” and his new book.

Presenters will include seven past and current presidents of the Law and Society Association, former SUNY Buffalo Law faculty and other notable researchers, and scholars new to the field: Scott Barclay, Anne Bloom, Anne Bunting, Michael Boucai, Renee Ann Cramer, Eve Darian-Smith, Marc Galanter, Valerie Hans, Fred Konefsky, Jamie Longazel, Stewart Macaulay, Anna-Maria Marshall, Lynn Mather, Michael McCann, Frank Munger, Neil Vidmar, Yoshitaka Wada and Barbara Yngvesson.

The conference was organized by Professors Samatha Barbas, Anya Bernstein, Fred Konefsky, Lynn Mather and Mary Nell Trautner. It is co-sponsored by SUNY Buffalo Law School, the UB Sociology Department and the Humanities Institute.

The conference will take place in 509 O’Brian Hall from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The public is invited. Visit the conference website to register and see the complete schedule. For questions, please contact conference director Mary Nell Trautner at trautner@buffalo.edu.