Global Forensic Cultures: Making Fact and Justice in the Modern Era, edited by Ian Burney and Christopher Hamlin. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019)
Reviewed by Monika Lemke, York University
This volume makes a contribution to the historical and interdisciplinary assessment of forensics, placing a special emphasis on the growth and development of its practices around the globe. As Hamlin points out in the introduction, forensics are often marginalized in legal historians’ accounts because of a tendency to explore law through cases and legislation rather than search for its quotidian implementation—or, similarly, to treat policing in ways which obscure its regular practices and routines. Not only does this volume correct this marginalization of forensic practices from wider accounts of modern public institutions, it displays an inspiring engagement with archival and other historical methodologies.
By collecting many unique cases together, the volume encourages readers to ask critical and comparative questions about the construction of forensic knowledge and expertise, and the interaction between forensics and institutional structures. Hamlin’s insightful introduction directs readers’ attention to the desires which propel states (or other forms of authority) to seek in forensics a silent witness, and to claim the moral or epistemic power that comes from its authority. Simon A. Cole’s timely afterword rounds out the volume. He notes the usefulness of correcting contemporary forensic science’s ahistorical view of itself, especially now that intelligence-led policing enlists forensic science as part of the state security apparatus. Throughout this volume, the cultural dimensions of forensic science are made explicit, including its fact-fixation, its accreditation as testimony, its relation to juridical institutions, and its broader role in the activities of government.
The volume is organized into three parts. In the first part, “Evidence and Epistemology,” the contributors explore how various analytical techniques were adopted in police and judicial institutions and gathered together under the rubric of forensic science. Marcus B. Carrier tracks how forensic toxicology was differentiated from its academic counterpart in nineteenth century Germany through a selection of highly comprehensible analytic methods and by legal reforms supporting both a greater role for experts in court proceedings and an expanded consideration of evidence by both juries and the judiciary. Mitra Sharafi reappraises the work of the office of imperial serologist in British India, which was employed in identifying putatively fabricated evidence at local crime scenes. The imperial serologist existed more or less solely to conduct precipitin tests, which could distinguish human blood from other animal blood. Crime scene investigators found this test useful to reveal what they believed was “fabricated evidence” in the course of domestic murder investigations. That is, investigators noticed a pattern in which families of murder victims planted so-called fabricated evidence, clothes spotted with goat blood, at the houses of their enemies. What colonial investigators failed to understand was that the animal blood was not planted as evidence, but as part of a complex local ritual of punitive self-harm meant to shame rather than identify the “true” culprit. Sharafi uses this forensic context as an opportunity to read colonial sources against grain. With this unique case of colonial forensics, she is able to explore more deeply South Asian notions of collective identity, punishment, and causation that were long obscured by the imperial office’s emphasis on exposing so-called Indian mendacity. In Prohit Bihari Mukharji’s chapter on the Hardless family, the proprietors of forensic graphology in British India, their effort to establish the authority of graphology meant attempting to detach its practice from their social standing and prestige by interpreting its methods through European technocratic motifs. Finally, Ian Burney compares two oppositional forensic cultures at play in the Sheppard case, a notorious 20th American homicide case, to illustrate the reciprocity of forensic cultures and practices. Each of these chapters offer insight how the interdependence between these forensic “pathways to truth” and the forms of authority that employed them shaped the expression of forensic sciences, such as graphology and toxiology.
The next section, “Practices of Power and Policing,” details how forensic science contributes to modern notions of civil society, nation, and empire through its integration into various institutions of government. Jeffrey Jentzen offers a survey of how the English coroner’s inquest, a universal touchstone of forensic culture, transformed to suit local conditions as it was exported to colonial settings in the British Empire. José Ramón Bertimeu-Sánchez engages another staple of forensic culture, the biometric identifier, in early 20th century Spain. In his discussion of Frederico Olóriz’s efforts to develop a national fingerprinting register, he frames forensics as an element of modern nation-building. Similarly, Binyamin Blum shows how the establishment of a Dog Section in the Palestine Police in 1935 (during the British Mandate) channelled the desire to model and shape a Palestinian civic identity, and enabled state authorities to circumvent cultural and political barriers to criminal investigation and prosecution. Quentin (Trais) Pearson shows how asserting dominion over forensic investigations, and opposing foreign intervention in them, is a means by which the Thai state sought to assuage its anxieties about its own diminished sovereignty. Through a vivid case study about the murder of two British tourists, he notes the way the kingdom’s performance of truth-finding shunned independent oversight for the sake of its authority.
Finally, the chapters in “Training and Transmitting” explore self-accrediting and professionalized forensic authorities. Bruno Bertharat offers a biographical account of eminent Parisian forensic pathologist Ambroise Tardieu, whose professional temperament left its legacy on the theory and practice of French forensic medicine. He shows how professional positioning, the insularity of the Paris Morgue, and the claim to unequalled skilled perception worked together to conceal the fallibility of the expert. Gagan Preet Singh follows the modernization of footprint tracking in nineteenth century Punjab and its official integration into imperial institutions, while reflecting on how so-called low, informal, or folk knowledges become integrated into the forensic apparatus. Finally, Heather Wolffram maps the diffusion of forensic knowledge and its adaptation to local conditions throughout the British Empire’s colonial network by following the career of “mobile imperial agent” Sydney Smith. Together, these chapters form a conversation about the relational networks necessary for the development and reproduction of forensic expertise across various geographical scales.
In total, this book contributes an understanding of the distinctiveness of forensic culture in global context and installs forensics as a technology of modern government in its own right alongside law, statistics, and public health. Readers will find this volume useful for its contributors’ ability to render the connective tissue between the “scientificity” of forensics and the role its knowledge plays in broader projects of colonialism, imperialism, nationalism, sovereignty, and modernity.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: For further, related reading in PoLAR reviews, see Lori Allen’s review essay, “The Social Life of Security,” and Davide Casciano’s review of The Grey Zone, by Gregory Feldman.]