The Social Life of Forensic Evidence in Portugal - Travelling between Epistemic Cultures

Wednesday, 18 July 2018: 08:45
Oral Presentation
Susana COSTA, Centre for Social Studies, Portugal
In ST&S studies forensic evidence is seen as material and social. Part of an apparatus, forensic evidence combines bodies, traces, technologies, legal, scientific and administrative practices. If the use of technologies and scientific knowledge can provide a more robust and credible character to forensic evidence it is also dependent on social and legal practices of the actors that compose the chain of custody.

The documents that police agents produce mediate the understanding between the crime scene and the court. The police give visibility to the narrative and assigns legitimacy and credibility to its performance. However, dealing with impure objects, this activity is liable to improvised practices. The decision to give to “see” certain aspects of the narrative, leaving others invisible may have repercussions in the production of robust evidence or a verdict.

This presentation is based in a qualitative analysis of an homicide case judged in a Portuguese court. It will be explored how the narrative constructed by the police, based on what they see and what is unseen, travels between epistemic cultures.

Starting from Appadurai’s concept of “the social life of things” and rescued by Corinne Kruse with “the social life of forensic evidence”, both allow objects or their trajectories to be followed. I will try to follow the trajectory of traces on this particular case and analyze how these objects travel between different epistemic cultures.

I argue that travelling from the crime scene, to the lab, to the court and also to the appeal court, the production of a narrative with legal value acquires different weight and relevance according to the understandings made from the same objects by different epistemic cultures. The way different actors and different epistemic cultures see and interpret the evidence determines the social life of forensic evidence.