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Forensic Cultures in Interdisciplinary Perspective

December 15, 2010

By Ross MacFarlane

This international conference, at the University of Manchester’s Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine in June 2010, brought together a range of experts from various backgrounds to examine and dissect the remarkable prominence of forensic science and medicine in contemporary culture.

Speakers consisted of both scholars and practitioners – from historians and sociologists to pathologists and reconstruction artists – and the topics that came under the microscope included the politics and practice of DNA evidence, the use of cold case review in re-evaluating notorious murder trials from the past, the historical invention of crime scene investigation, the work of forensic identification at mass grave sites and media forensics.

Lingering over many of the papers was the so-called ‘CSI effect’: the perception that the application of modern-day DNA forensics can solve crimes as speedily – and infallibly – as depicted in the hugely popular CSI TV series. A number of the speakers at the Conference examined this phenomenon: Simon Cole (University of California, Irvine) on its effect on jurors and Barbara Prainsack (King’s College London) while examining the responses to modern forensic evidence by prisoners in Austria.

The conference had an equal balance between contemporary forensics issues and the historical roots of forensics. Christopher Hamlin (University of Notre Dame) opened by examining the emergence of forensic authority and medical jurisprudence in the 18th and 19th centuries, while Neil Pemberton and Ian Burney (University of Manchester) positioned the construction of contemporary notions of the ‘crime scene’ in relation to the police investigation into John Reginald Christie’s murders at 10 Rillington Place in the 1950s.

Often the papers that investigated the past were not being delivered by historians: David Foran (Director of Michigan State University’s Forensic Biology Laboratory) spoke of his controversial work in questioning the conviction of John Harvey Crippen for the murder of his wife in 1910, following tests he has conducted on slides from the Royal London Hospital Archives used in Crippen’s trial. And Gary Edmond (Faculty of Law, University of New South Wales) situated his study of the present-day unreliability of ‘facial mapping’ with the problems of previous forms of identification such as photography and fingerprinting.

The papers from the range of speakers working on different forms of practical ‘forensic culture’ illustrated the diversity of professions and skills that fall under this umbrella. Paul Roberts (School of Law, University of Nottingham) spoke on how DNA evidence is used in the adversarial proceedings of courts of law. Caroline Wilkinson (University of Dundee) works on the facial reconstruction of unidentified bodies; her paper considered the ethical and cultural issues this raises. The sensitivities of communities figured large in the paper from William Haglund (International Forensic Program, Physicians for Human Rights); he served as the Senior Forensic Advisor to the International Criminal Tribune for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and he illustrated the diplomatic red tape and political obstructions he has faced when trying to carry out examinations of mass grave sites. It is not every day you hear from someone whose day job is to work with the after-effects of genocide; Haglund’s paper showed his patience, sense of duty and responsibility and certainly constituted one of the most powerful talks I’ve ever heard at an academic conference.

Such scenes described by Haglund are familiar to us from news broadcasts, and television’s role in forensics was the subject of a number of talks: Deborah Jermyn (Roehampton University) argued that a groundbreaking TV series in terms of the realistic depiction of forensics was Lynda La Plante’s Prime Suspect. David Kirby (University of Manchester) cast his net wider, illustrating the range of forensic crime series on our screens, and outlining the different ethos and aims of these shows. Perhaps the most interesting speaker on this theme was an actual TV insider: Barbara Machin – creator of Silent Witness and Waking the Dead – who gave her perspective on the rise of forensic crime series and suggested what future directions this (sub-)genre might move in.

Interdisciplinary conferences often promise much but sometimes fall short owing to the disparate backgrounds and interests of the attendees. ‘Forensic Cultures’, however, was a great example of how different disciplines can come together and provoke interesting discussions and debates. The conference also showed the importance of positioning such debates in their historical contexts, and made this attendee consider the Wellcome Library’s high-profile collection of forensic casenotes of pathologist Bernard Spilsbury in new ways.

All attendees were encouraged to contribute to the discussions after each paper and the friendliness and good humour these took place in owes much to the work of the conference organisers. The ‘CSI effect’ may be a detrimental one, but the effect of ‘Forensic Cultures’ was altogether far more positive.

Ross MacFarlane is attached to the Wellcome Library.

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