The Paradox of Community

“One can see that insiders are caught in the paradox of community: The
same cultural vocabulary that undermines community is simultaneously that
community's idiom of self-affirmation” (Greenhouse, et al. 175). In Law and
Community, David M. Engel explores how ordinary people in a small, rural,
Illinois town perceive the law, courts, litigants, and community. By analyzing
the legal practices and relations in Sander County, it is evident that law and
the courts play a central role in the processes of making and unmaking
communities. Furthermore, this study illustrates how such manifestations,
reflections of the “insider's” ideology, fail to live up to the promises for “
law” in our society.
In the 1970s, Sander County was undergoing great social and economic
changes. Agriculture, a central part of life for most residents, became more
mechanized and a few large manufacturing plants opened, bringing in “quite a
number of a certain element” Sander County had “never had before” (29). Long-
time residents, worried about change, express what they believe to be “the new
role of laws and the courts in the local and national society“ (1).
Though personal injury litigation rates are lower in Sander County than
other major types of litigation, a norm of aversion towards this legal discourse
is evident throughout the majority of the community. Those who enforce personal
injury claims are viewed by fellow residents as greedy, selfish, and “quick to
sue.” Litigation is portrayed as weakening the collective values personified in
the law as a means of turning the law against the community to make an “easy
buck” (144). Even highly respected members of the community are criticized for
making personal injury claims. For example, a minister filed a suit after
slipping and falling at a school. A local observer commented by saying there
are “a lot of people who are resentful for it, because...he chose to sue” (28).
The long-time residents of Sander County were experiencing a prevalent sense of
a collapse in the conventional dependencies and exchanges that had typified life
in Sander County. Understandings of personal injury claims are largely shaped
by these societal transformations as the local populace encounters them and also
by the notion that traditional relationships in the community were progressively
falling apart (30). These changes threaten Sander County's sense of community.
This manifests in the frequent condemnation of personal injury claims.
Sander County values an individualism that emphasizes self-sufficiency
and personal responsibility rather than a rights-oriented individualism. To be
a part of the community, an insider must embrace the reality that one's concerns
are “not entirely one's own,” that one's wants are linked to the wants of others
(123). Pursuing a claim against someone else because of a personal injury is “
an attempt to escape responsibility for one's own actions” (33). The wide-
spread notion here is that the victims probably could have prevented the injury
if they were more careful. This strong sense of self-reliance also stems from
their perceptions of money. The people of Sander County, many of them farmers,
work long and hard hours for their money. Dramatizing one's ill fortunes is not
a legitimate means of acquiring it. As a rather close-knit community, the
residents are well acquainted with each other and interact frequently if not on
a daily basis. Pursuing a personal injury claim is not only atypical but rather
awkward for the plaintiff since it is highly probable that he or she knows the
defendant. This community pressure keeps the majority of the people from
pursuing litigation for personal injuries. For example, a woman who lost her
child in a car accident, influenced by community pressure, failed to file a
claim. Instead, she settled for $12,000 (35). Wronged individuals usually
react to injuries without litigation. They do so either because they do not
regard the issue as a contention with another person or because association in
an insular society hinders them from maintaining an assertion that is socially
Even the lawyers of Sander County, whose professional role is to assert
claims on behalf of plaintiffs, share the indigenous partiality to criticize
those who advance personal injury claims. “A lot of people are more conducive
to settlement here,” says a local attorney, “because they are attempting to be
fair as opposed to making a fast buck” (38). Of the small handful of personal
injury cases that make it all the way to Sander County Court, most have a common
trait: The participants are divided by either a geographic or cultural stretch
that cannot be spanned by any means bereft of litigation (40). If retort
embracing the