Be(ar)ing witness: Testimony, evidence, and subjectivation in institutional contexts

Convenors: Alessandra Gribaldo (University of Bologna), Tommaso Sbriccoli (SOAS, University of London), Barbara Sorgoni (University of Turin).

Recently, social sciences have devoted much effort to the investigation of processes of subjectivation within contemporary society. Governmental practices intersecting various aspects of life have been approached as instances of how people constitute themselves, or are constituted, as subjects. Although the role of witnesses in legal and institutional contexts is a crucial field to tackle this topic, it has nonetheless remained understudied.

Each instance of testimony in institutional forums goes through processes that force it to comply with specific assumptions and requirements (clarifying the identity of the witness, the need for chronological consistency and non-contradiction, a focus on a coherent space-time framework, coherent narrative of the self, veridicity, objective evidence, and so on).

In order to reach a legal outcome, complex experiences are tailored to fit into adequate narratives by legal and discursive devices, and all subjects involved continuously negotiate the conditions under which a testimony can be acknowledged. Finally, different juridical forms and institutional procedures act within different regimes of truth, each one implying specific epistemic principles. All the above processes get further complicated in intercultural settings, where witnesses’ narratives need to be translated into different languages and format in order to be received and assessed by decision makers.

The panel will focus on empirical research on contemporary institutional practices related to both formal legal settings as courts, and those “middle ground” contexts which are best analysed through the ethnographic method, such as (among many others) asylum cases, human trafficking, domestic and sexual abuse, and forms of assessment of psycho-bodily dimensions in legal and medical cases when diseases or abuses are to be attested. The session invites to reflect on the specific nature of testimonial evidence, the relationship with institutional and formal requirements, the kind of discourses involved in truth assessment, which kind of subject has the chance to make her voice heard and through what kind of testimony.

The aim is to investigate the role of witnesses in these contexts, in order to grasp which juridical and institutional expectations and codes are shared and put into practice by decision-makers and other participants, how subjectivities are produced, and how normative frameworks intersect with moral, political and cultural ones.

Papers should ideally engage with one or more of the following themes:

  • The political meaning of subjectivity construction in institutional settings    

  • The role of ethnicity, gender and citizenship in testimony reception 

  • The role of interpreters and other social and legal professionals    

  • The relationship between testimony and evidence

  • Contestations, agency and strategies in reporting witness

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