The Trouble with Race in Forensic Identification

Science, Technology, and Human Values 45 (5):804-828 (2020)
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Abstract

The capacity of contemporary forensic genetics has rendered “race” into an interesting tool to produce clues about the identity of an unknown suspect. Whereas the conventional use of DNA profiling was primarily aimed at the individual suspect, more recently a shift of interest in forensic genetics has taken place, in which the population and the family to whom an unknown suspect allegedly belongs, has moved center stage. Making inferences about the phenotype or the family relations of this unknown suspect produces suspect populations and families. We discuss the criminal investigation following the Marianne Vaatstra murder case in the Netherlands and the use of forensic technologies therein. It is in many ways an interesting case, but in this paper, we focus on how race surfaced in science and society. We show that race materializes neither in the technologies used nor in the bodies at stake. Rather, race emerges through a material semiotic relation that surfaces in the translation that occurs as humans and things move across sites. We argue that race is enacted, firstly, in the context of legislation as biology reduced to bodily characteristics; secondly, in the forensic analyses as patterns of absent presence; and, thirdly, in society as a process of phenotypic othering.

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