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History of Science Colloquia

Spaces and Traces: The Making of the Modern Crime Scene

OCTOBER 10, 2011

noon, location TBA

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We are, it seems, living in a new era of forensic investigation. Stimulated by the introduction of DNA profiling in the mid-1980s, a new landscape has emerged, complete with its own iconography—the white-suits of anonymous Scenes of Crime Officers; challenges—hyper-vigilance against material contamination; and spaces—especially the highly disciplined crime scene and its promise of yielding bio-trace evidence.

These developments have not gone unnoticed. A burgeoning sociological and legal literature, for example, has drawn attention to complexities of securing DNA profiling as a viable evidentiary tool. Forensics in a self-consciously modern cast has also entrenched itself in the public imagination, showcased on highly-rated television shows, in best-selling crime novels, and in our daily newspapers. Yet attention to the complexities of our forensic present has not been matched by historical analysis, and this is particularly true for the twentieth century. This comes at a cost: in the shadow of the undeniably spectacular advances in recent forensic techniques, prior practices are commonly assumed to be relics of a by-gone age, discontinuous from—and thus uninteresting to—the world we now inhabit.

My aim in this talk is to contribute some material for thinking historically about our understanding, and imagining, of modern forensic investigation. It does so by taking one of its best publicized elements—the crime scene as a delineated space within which to harvest minute traces of evidence—and considering it as an historical artefact. I want to suggest that the "Crime Scene Investigation" that we have absorbed as consumers of forensic representations both fictional and factual —an amalgam of practices, possibilities, and sensibilities—has a past worth thinking about.

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