In recent years, forensic medicine and science have attained unprecedented visibility, representing a uniquely compelling, and at times contentious, example of applied expertise. Dominated by new laboratory-based techniques, modern practitioners and the public they serve live in an apparent era of forensic infallibility, characterised by precision methodologies deemed capable not merely of solving the most intractable of contemporary criminal cases, but also of retrospectively assessing, and often correcting, conclusions derived from past investigations. The declarative powers of modern forensics have penetrated the public imagination, showcased on in daily newspapers, in best-selling novels and on highly rated television shows. One consequence of this modern fascination with forensics is that it has created a normative standard of forensic truth, determined by the practices and procedures of DNA typing, which has impoverished our ability to recognize, understand, and explain forms of forensic practice operating in other times and other places.
The purpose of this conference is to explore ways, and assess the value, of thinking about forensics, past and present, from a broader, historical and trans-national perspective. The papers and discussion will raise questions about the importance of “location” (temporal and spatial) to the production and enactment of different forms of forensic knowledge – differences in legal systems (e.g. burdens of proof, roles of experts and witnesses), in medical and scientific institutional infrastructure and the degrees of credibility that they sustain, in the skills and distribution of investigative personnel, in financial and practical constraints on investigation, and in the popular cultures of forensics and of criminality within and against which forensic practitioners operate.
By foregrounding these thematic categories and running them through historically and contextually-grounded case studies, we should be able to develop new ways of thinking about forensics as a form of knowing and acting which draws on a range of techniques, technologies, and tacit understandings that extend beyond the normative standards set by our normative present and consider the embodied, particularistic and qualitative dimensions of forensic practices. How, for example, is trace hunting enacted differently by a Punjabi “tracker” and a US trained-sniffer dog, and what if anything links them, in terms of method, rationale, or terms of validation and admissibility? How and why might a poisoning trial in nineteenth-century Calcutta differ – procedurally, epistemologically, rhetorically – from one held in nineteenth-century Lyon? Is a network of forensic science laboratory designed for Empire different conceptually, administratively, or operationally, from one built for use in England, and how might those differences be mapped? How do bodies speak as medico-legal objects in an early twentieth century Beijing mortuary, and how might similarities and differences from those examined in a Parisian mortuary of the same era be significant for appreciating the importance of local variables in pursuit of ostensibly universal bodily truth?