The Songs of Other Birds


The Songs of Other Birds



Published as Chapter 14 in Insiders, Outsiders, Injuries, and Law: Revisiting The Oven Bird’s Song.

In this essay, written for a volume that re-engages with David Engel's classic article, The Oven Bird's Song, I consider how we decide how to situate what we encounter in our research. Comparing the findings of my own research in Taipei with Engel's work in Thailand and America, I ask how we can decide to give different interpretations of seemingly similar social phenomena -- specifically, our interlocutors' evident distaste for invoking the law.

Although many of my interlocutors in Taiwan expressed dismay at the disorder of their nation, no one ever suggested that law would be a good way to solve the problem. The community activists I studied did not see law as a useful tool. I studied government administrators and community activists. For both, the invocation of law was at best a bit of icing on a cake of otherwise appropriate social belonging. At worst, it could signal breakdown: a failure of social engagement; of social norms; of other, more legitimate, values.

This devaluation of legality among my interlocutors is certainly reminiscent of the devaluation of litigation in Sander County (Engel 1984) and in northern Thailand (Engel 2006). Yet seen within its sociohistorical context, it highlights important differences as well. These differences, in turn, highlight the way that understanding the roles of law in society depends heavily on historically informed, culturally embedded, and locally specific research.

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Cambridge University Press


New York



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Comparative and Foreign Law | Law | Law and Society

The Songs of Other Birds