Austin D. Sarat, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science, has been selected to receive the Lasting Contribution Award from the American Political Science Association’s Law and Courts section for his scholarly article “The Emergence and Transformation of Disputes: Naming, Blaming, Claiming.”

Austin Sarat

The award, to be shared with Sarat’s co-authors William L.F. Felstiner and Richard L. Abel, recognizes a book or article more than 10 years old that has had lasting significance upon the study of jurisprudence within the field of political science.

Doris Marie Provine, a professor of justice and social inquiry at Arizona State University and a member of the Lasting Contribution Award committee, explained: “We chose ‘The Emergence and Transformation of Disputes’ for the APSA Lasting Contribution Award because it is innovative, important, and has been very influential. It describes, in understandable terms, the path that people may travel after a painful experience as they move toward blame and then possible resolution. We owe these scholars a debt for providing us this roadmap through the disputing process.”

Published in the journal Law & Society Review in 1980, “The Emergence and Transformation of Disputes” explores the role of law in society and culture. It reviews the means by which conflicts or perceived injuries become lawsuits and concludes that, when considered from the perspective of most litigants, the United States is not excessively litigious. 

When published, the article broke new ground by examining what Sarat calls law’s “cultural and social life.” Whereas political scientists have long studied the voting patterns of the Supreme Court to determine whether it is a “political institution,” Sarat and his co-authors chose to look at the law from a “bottom-up perspective,” asking how it influences individuals and society from day to day.

“It was an effort to say, ‘If you’re interested in law, you need to see law and legal phenomena from the perspective of the people who turn to law or use legal phenomena,’” Sarat said. “The article … opened up a domain of inquiry that was previously thought to be unimportant to political science.”

In addition to regarding law itself as a topic of political study, “The Emergence and Transformation of Disputes” offers a means of gauging Americans’ litigiousness. Using that framework, the authors made their surprising finding. “What we said,” noted Sarat, “is that ,… if you actually look at things that might become matters of legal interest, you see that most of them don’t.”

Each year, the Law and Courts section of the APSA solicits entries for each of eight awards for outstanding papers, books or work in the study of jurisprudence as a subset of political science. The award carries a cash prize of $250.

Though Sarat is not a lawyer, his co-authors are. Felstiner is a former Distinguished Research Professor of Law at Cardiff University and former chairman of the American Bar Association, and Able is the Michael J. Connell Professor of Law, Emeritus, at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Sarat and his co-authors will accept the award at a ceremony during the American Political Science Association’s annual meeting, which will be held Sept. 1 to 4 in Seattle.