AAA 2015 Preview: Speaking of Evidence

Tapia property titles
@Leart Zogjani&Agathe Mora 2013, Tapia (Ottoman) property titles carefully kept for generations, Serbia

by Kate Sullivan, California State University Los Angeles

Agathe Mora and Kate Sullivan have organized the APLA & AES Invited Session, Interrogating Evidentiary Familiarities, Thursday, November 18, 1:45 pm to 3:30 pm. The organizers share an interest in investigating bureaucratic social practices and technocratic processes. They find fascinating the ways in which technical processes —procedures meant to prevent or resolve social conflict, and to organize, standardize and depoliticize social outcomes— are themselves the products of and often contribute to highly politicized social relations. For this panel, Mora and Sullivan bring together anthropologists working in different arenas of bureaucracy in order to interrogate the ways in which evidence, a particularly technocratic form of knowledge and knowledge practice, is produced. We have invited our participants to address the following questions: “What social practices are used to constitute evidence? What counts as evidence and why? How are different types of evidence weighted, and how do evidence protocols participate in the making of bureaucratic practices that are represented as ‘transparent’ and ‘truthful’? How does evidence itself constitute forms of technology, materiality, and affect as it enacts and mediates these forms?”

Engleke (2008) suggests that anthropologists need to more carefully interrogate the notion of evidence, paying attention to the way in which evidence must operate in relation to specific purposes or lines of argumentation, or as Hastrup (2004, see also Collingwood 1946) emphasizes, as part of a specific and rigorous system of knowledge. While many anthropologists’ discussions of evidence turn on a disciplinary concern with the ethnographic record and ethnographic texts as forms of evidence, the making and application of both evidence and evidence protocols are widespread, iterative social practices in contemporary societies. The panel has been asked to consider some of the robust and provocative evidence-making practices in bureaucratized venues in which evidence is defined, created, managed, organized, maintained, and applied in order to achieve instrumental and practical outcomes, as opposed to achieving largely epistemological outcomes.

Kate Sullivan investigates the development and implementation of evidence protocols, in particular metadata protocols, for the government-backed digital West Coast USA ocean data portal. Imminent in portal creation and as a part of portal expansion, the portal creators have moved beyond assembling databases and are increasingly using the portal databases to pose and answer far-reaching policy questions about ocean conservation. Jon Schubert focuses our attention on another venue dependent on large scale, digital data sharing. He examines commercial risk-forecasting, where practitioners draw together and organize open source data into evidence for risk factors in economic decisions about commercial undertakings ranging from insurance risk to industrial development. Sandalia Genus follows the path of human blood through human-created protocols and social networks as blood samples come to serve as crucial evidence in clinical drug trials. Agathe Mora delves into the reams of war-related property claims files meant to clarify and restore property rights in Kosovo, illuminating the ways in which a legal nomenclature emergent in those files mediates between ideal and actual property restoration practices. Anthony Good (2008), our next panelist, has shown how the contrasts between legal evidence and ethnographic evidence position the anthropologist-expert witness as mediator and translator for both legal and anthropological forms of evidence. His panel paper, also drawing on his extensive research on refugee and asylum issues, traces the different metalinguistic styles deployed in making ‘Country of Origin Information’ records, which are crucial to the categorization of persons as refugees and asylum seekers in both the UK and France. Beth Mertz has kindly agreed to be the discussant for this panel. As each of these cases underscores, the anthropological analytical gaze must remain attuned to the several different registers in which any single evidence-making practice simultaneously operates (cf. Engleke’s comments on scale 2008:S12-S15), and the way in which, while serving as a technology for managing social relations, evidence practices can also produce unanticipated outcomes.

Collingwood, R.G. 1946 The Idea of History, Epilegomena: 3, Historical Evidence. Oxford University Press. Electronic document:, accessed September 20, 2015

Engleke, Matthew. 2008 The Objects of Evidence. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 14:S1-21. Stable URL:

Good, Anthony. 2008 Cultural Evidence in Courts of Law. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 14:S47-S60. Stable URL:

Hastrup, Kirsten. 2004 Getting It Right: Knowledge and Evidence in Anthropology. Anthropological Theory 4(3): 455-472.

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