Making Bones Talk
Bodies, Materialities and Knowledge in the situated practices of forensic anthropology
A project conceived, developed and coordinated by:
Edson Luis de Almeida Teles (Centro de Antropologia e Arqueologia Forense, Universidade Federal de São Paulo)
Fernanda Miranda da Cruz (Linguistics, Universidade Federal de São Paulo)
Lorenza Mondada (Linguistics, University of Basel)
Several disciplines rely on various forms of paradigma indiziario (Ginzburg) to excavate the past by making objects talk – such as police inquiries, archeological excavations, and forensic investigations. Some of these disciplines address specific types of objects: human remnants, and more particularly bones. In this case, expert practitioners are involved in the reconstruction and identification of persons on the basis of human remains: this generates technical and scientific knowledge in a way that involves not only multidisciplinary expertise (from anthropology, archeology, forensic studies, medical studies and genetics…) but also an embodied engagement with various materialites, and in particular body materials.
In this project, we study the situated practices of a team of forensic experts, engaged with the identification of victims of forced disappearance in Brazil. These practices involve various aspects that intertwine epistemic, material and anthropological issues, connecting knowledge, sensoriality and politics in the everyday practice of working with bone remnants. The project pursues the study of these practices through ethnomethodology and conversation analysis (EMCA) on the basis of video recordings of the work of a forensic team reassembling the bones of victims. The study treats their collective situated practices as a perspicuous setting in which issues of scientific knowledge, embodied manual and sensorial knowledge, and political knowledge are deeply intertwined.
In close partnership with the team of the Centro de Antropologia e Arqueologia Forense, Universidade Federal de São Paulo, the project is currently video-recording the process of reconstruction and identification of bodies on the basis of bones found in a bag in a clandestine pit where corpses were concealed during the Brazilian dictatorship (which lasted from 1964 to 1985). Video-recordings are made with several cameras and microphones. The data are transcribed following the conventions for talk and multimodality used in Conversation Analysis. Grounded on the EMCA (Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis) approach, the data are analyzed integrating sequential organization (Schegloff), categorization analysis (Sacks), and multimodality (Goodwin, Heath, Mondada).
The project aims at contributing to a diversity of fields and issues:
the study of scientific knowledge: the production of scientific knowledge is considered through the situated practices through which facts are assembled and demonstrated, versions are developed, reasoning and interpreting are elaborated within social interaction in the laboratory (Garfinkel 2022; Lynch 1985; Mondada 2005).
the study of teams at work: inspired by workplace studies (Heath & Luff, 2000) the project considers collaboration and coordination between experts from different fields, such as anthropology, genetics, and medicine. The work of human reconstruction and identification is a interdisciplinary endeavor that brings together specialists looking at the same objects – bones – from within different perspectives, expertises and languages, while at the same time talking to each other and working together.
the study of embodied practices manipulating and sensing materiality (Mondada, 2021): the in situ work of forensic experts crucially involves the manipulation of bones. These are not just material objects, they are human remnants. The way they are sensorially handled, being visually inspected, cautiously taken into hands, haptically explored, and sensed with emotion, is part of the achievement of their description, analysis, and interpretation.
the study of the local (re)categorizations of human bodies/body parts: along the inventory of the bones, the reconstruction of the skeleton, the identification and discovery of anatomical details, the assemblage of body parts relies on their categorization (Sacks, 1972, 1992). Categorial transformations are achieved in situ through their formal-anatomical descriptions, the discovery of lived reconstructable/inferrable features, processes and events (such as age, health and illness, violence and torture), as well as the final identification of the person. Moreover, the scientific analysis undertaken post-mortem is complemented by ante-mortem inquiries with living parents and friends, assembling information making future identification possible. From the bones as objects to the bones as human parts, from bodies to persons, the forensic work constitutes the local achievement of ontological categories such as materiality, body, identity, person, and humanity.