Legal Truth and Social Testimony: The Battle for Evidence

‘I cannot go on suspicion, I can only look at the evidence,’ Lord Selborne famously proclaimed during the 1882 trial of Nobel’s Explosives Co. v. Jones, thereby succinctly summarizing the sacred place the concept of evidence occupies in the Western legal tradition. Purported as the primary manner of establishing certainty and unveiling the nature of truth (Eckert 2016), ideas of, and proper procedure regarding, evidence are not only a common denominator in contemporary court decisions across the globe, but a sacrosanct symbol of the connection between the practice of law and its claims to justice delivery. However, though evidentiary procedures are heralded as a great equalizer on any path to formal justice, ethnographic data suggests that the material artefacts and narrative structures that come to count as ‘solid’ or ‘sufficient’ evidence are not equally accessible to all. The need to make narratives linear (Tate 2007, Strejilevich 2006) and to produce particular bureaucratic documents (Good 2004) turns the search for evidence into a socially uneven playing field, the success of which hinges upon a given group or person’s ability to mobilize a wide range of social and economic capital. Further, anthropologists have recently turned to the category of evidence itself (Engelke 2009; Kruse 2016), considering its production and meaning.

In this panel, we will explore evidence as a socially produced category of truth. We invite contributions that consider the category of evidence and the relationships between evidence and claims to justice. We ask, what material, narrative and procedural forms evidence must take in different legal and social settings? What claims can be—or must be—supported by evidence? What kind of social and political entanglements are generated through the production of evidence? What are the links between evidence, testimony, proof, and justice? Given the increasing role of medical professionals for cases involving survivors of torture or violence (Kelly 2012), we also welcome submissions that consider the implications of medical evidence and explore its relationship with legal and/or social truth.

Please send abstracts of 250 words—along with affiliation and contact information—to and by April 2, 2019

Keywords: law, evidence, narrative, truth, documents