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Reviewed by:
  • Global Forensic Cultures: Making Fact and Justice in the Modern Era ed. by Ian Burney and Christopher Hamlin
  • Jeffrey S. Adler
Global Forensic Cultures: Making Fact and Justice in the Modern Era. Edited by Ian Burney and Christopher Hamlin (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019) 346 pp. $64.95

Television programs, novels, and films depicting crime investigations have led the general public, as well as attorneys, judges, and jurors, to believe that forensic methods provide “objective” evidence in criminal trials. Science, after all, does not lie. Thus, dna traces and blood-spatter patterns, for example, represent “silent witnesses” and promise “ever more perfect” justice (3). Observers have dubbed this the “CSI effect” (3). Focusing on the history of forensic techniques, Global Forensic Cultures reveals a more complex, contested perspective on the relationship between science and law.

The chapters in this volume explore topics ranging from the use of DNA evidence in Thai history to the adoption of Doberman Pinchers as trackers in early twentieth-century Palestine. They reject the positivist interpretation of forensic innovation, instead emphasizing the influence of cultural forces on the embrace of “scientific” courtroom testimony. Far from supplying “truth” in legal proceedings, forensic evidence and expert witnesses typically buttressed imperial power.

The contributors devote particular attention to the adoption of forensic methods in nineteenth-and early twentieth-century British colonies. Binyamin Blum, in his chapter about Egyptian trackers, and Heather Wolffram, in hers about the forensic pathologist Sydney Smith, for instance, argue that colonial conditions presented unique challenges to, and thus opportunities for, investigative innovation. The techniques that proved compelling often traveled from the far-flung reaches of the empire to the metropole. But conflicting cultural pressures shaped the adoption and adaptation of these methods. Some of the chapters in the volume emphasize the ways in which forensic evidence, always presented as objective, provided imperial officials with powerful tools to combat local custom. Colonial administrators often feared the mendacity of native crime witnesses and worried that Europeans would be vulnerable to their false testimony. Thus, “truth technologies,” such as ballistics and chemical testing, provided a counterweight, protecting imperial officials from fabricated charges, and, as a consequence, safeguarding the racial hierarchy in the colonies (158). Other contributors, such as Mitra Sharafi, in her examination of blood analysis in British India, suggest an even-more complicated process, wherein the adoption of forensic methods revealed the interaction between state and non-state political forces and legal practices.

Global Forensic Cultures has the usual strengths and weaknesses of edited volumes. The chapters are engaging and thoughtful but vary in quality and scope. Some focus on individual trials and others on national legal standards; some are biographical and narrative and others heavily theorized; and some are largely historiographical and others based on extensive archival research. Moreover, none of the essays discusses the [End Page 136] frequency with which attorneys presented forensic evidence in court. Rather, the contributors emphasize the pioneers in the field and the wider embrace of forensic methods as authoritative. Hence, taken together, the chapters make an impressive contribution to the history of science. The volume’s contribution to legal history, however, is more difficult to gauge, since dna evidence, blood-spatter analysis, and forensic toxicology was (and remains) principally restricted to high-profile cases and “show trials.”

Global Forensic Cultures challenges popular perceptions of the authority of the scientific methods employed in crime investigations. The contributors stop short of reaching any single conclusion, but, collectively, they demonstrate that imperial politics and social anxieties invariably shaped the purported “final frontier of fairness” in criminal justice (4).

Jeffrey S. Adler
University of Florida


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pp. 136-137
Launched on MUSE
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