This is the second post in our blog series designed to help you link your teaching with the 2016 Annual Meeting theme, Evidence, Accident, Discovery. The series offers relevant teaching resources to instructors of undergraduate and graduate courses on methods, ethics and theory. Think of it as a week’s course readings in a (virtual) box…
This week’s post comes from Richard Ashby Wilson.
Experts on Trial: The Anthropology of Expert Evidence and Testimony
In December 1998, I was called to testify as an expert before a Commons Select Committee on International Development at the Houses of Parliament in the United Kingdom. The Committee was reviewing British foreign development aid and writing a White Paper on a new phenomenon in global governance, titled, “Reconciliation and Reconstruction in Post-Conflict Countries.”
At the time, I was conducting research and writing a book about the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I immediately got the sense that the Committee, made up of Labour, Conservative and Liberal Party MPs, were competing with each other as much as asking questions that they actually wanted answered. I was completely unprepared for the policy setting and the need for categorical yes or no (rather than meandering, “well it depends”) answers. As his final question, the Chair asked directly, “Should the British government fund truth commissions in post-conflict countries, yes or no?” I opened my mouth without any idea of what answer would come out.
In that moment, I thought of all the criticisms levelled at the South African TRC; that is was more attentive to perpetrators than victims, that it had no coherent view of reconciliation, nor the historical “truth” it was meant to write. Just before I uttered my response, an image of a fighter jet flashed before my eyes and I thought of all the military aid that Britain provided friendly, but not often democratic, countries. “Yes,” I answered decisively, wondering if indeed that was a defensible reply.
This experience set me on a path of studying social researchers who testify in policy settings, and especially at international criminal courts. When is their testimony accepted and when is it rejected, and why? How do the epistemological frameworks of law and policy operate with similar and different principles of proof and causation to that of anthropology and other forms of social research? This is a fascinating area of ethnographic study that is still an emergent field of enquiry, despite that anthropologists have served as experts to courts and governments for at least a century.
Eltringham, Nigel. 2013. “’Illuminating the Broader Context’: Anthropological and Historical Knowledge at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 19:338-355.
Good, Anthony. 2008. “Cultural Evidence in Courts of Law.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Special Issue. Pp. 47-60.
Rosen, Lawrence. 1977. “The Anthropologist as Expert Witness.” American Anthropologist. 79(3):555-578.
Wilson, Richard Ashby. 2011. Writing History in International Criminal Trials. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Chapter 8.
Wilson, Richard Ashby (2016) “Experts on Trial: Social Science Evidence at International Criminal Tribunals.” American Ethnologist. Forthcoming. Issue 43(4), November. Available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2781549