Framing Forensics

For the last few months, I’ve been thinking about how  “forensics”, “forensic research” or “forensic practice” are commonly understood. The interest is driven in part by long familiarity with the uses of historical methods and research to support very contemporary preoccupations, and the somewhat unusual conjoining of “forensic” and “history” as a single discipline. I write “unusual” here only in the sense that “forensic” and “forensics” are usually associated with lab coats, applied science and crime scenes, and much less so with the stereotypical image of historians rifling through boxes of records in musty archives. These are popular images of very specific and limited elements of disciplinary practice, of course. They hardly do justice, so to speak, to the substance that each of those representations draws from.

The association between historical practice and “forensics” is much less unusual  – in the sense that it should resonate quite strongly and intuitively – among postgraduate students and historians indoctrinated into the arcane mysteries of the profession. In their readings on philosophies and approaches to history, they learn that its early development (in the West) was grounded in a legalistic pursuit of evidence and scholarly rigor. It is also much less unusual, in the same sense, for anyone familiar with “public history”, a more recent though now well-established type of professionalisation within the field. So historians have a robust professional understanding of such issues by virtue of their training, and at least in some cases they will sense an affinity between what historians do and the requirements of a more general (or specific) forensic practice. 

Resonance is a tricky beast, however. Different things resonate in different ways with different people. In frame theory, one way of making sense of resonance is to understand the “cognitive script” or “schema of interpretation” (the raw collection of data and details that makes up  our subconscious) from which we draw various conceptual apparatus (analogies, metaphors, and other devices that function as a kind of shorthand for the complex reality that surrounds us). One of the challenges associated with framing  – particularly for anyone using it to understand human communication – is frame alignment (and by extension, misalignment) between “source” (the cognitive script) and “target” (the thing being framed). Get the alignment right when framing an idea or a policy, and the idea or policy will resonate with an audience, thereby increasing the chance that the idea or policy will be accepted. Get the alignment wrong, misalign the frame, and any hope that it will resonate with its intended audience becomes a much more tenuous proposition.

This is a gross over-simplification of a fairly sophisticated field, but I wanted to push through the essentials quickly in order to get to the idea of “original meaning”. Remember that framing uses devices like metaphors and analogies as conceptual shorthand. The range of framing devices is actually quite broad, but metaphors and analogies are among the most powerful. In order for the putative analyst to map instances and frequency of metaphorical discourse (whether that discourse is purely textual or a more holistic collection of actions, texts, and the like), its component parts have to be identified and understood. This requires knowledge of the “original meaning” of metaphorical terms, and differentiation between original meaning and later meanings that have accrued to those same terms over time. That differentiation allows us to pinpoint when a term is actually being used metaphorically, and when it is being used in its original form.

In some cases, an analogical or metaphorical cascade can be observed, wherein multiple layers of metaphorical meaning accrue to the same term in successive stages over time. The result is a word or an expression or a turn of phrase that carries multiple possible meanings, some of which may be obvious and easily discernible, while others only reveal themselves under certain circumstances, in certain contexts, or through more esoteric and prolonged forms of inquiry. Which brings me back to the idea of “forensic” research, and forensic historical research in particular. The term “forensic” is from the latin forensis, which refers to early Roman legal practice in which victim and accused presented their respective cases to an audience in a forum. In this original meaning, “forensic” meant something that was both “public” and “legal” in its orientation. Over time, it came to denote something more narrowly of a legal nature, acted out in a specifically legal setting like a courtroom or before a judge. More recently, it narrowed again, “forensic” and “forensics” becoming descriptors for the collection and processing of evidence in criminal policing, typically using hard science tools and processes that are highly amenable to fine-grained identification of relevant physical minutiae.

The point I’m trying to make with this dime-store genealogy is that “forensic” has a number of meanings, all of them connected in interesting and relevant ways. That some of those meanings are anchored in historical context makes them even more rather than less relevant to current issues. In a sense, I’m advocating a cross-disciplinary or multi-disciplinary recovery of the term. No research discipline is more or less inherently “forensic”; research is not inherently “forensic” because it relies on genetic testing or applied chemistry; hard sciences are not more inherently “forensic” than social sciences, and social sciences are not more inherently “forensic” than, say, historical research (or vice versa). Rather, research is inherently “forensic” when it is being conducted for legal purposes, to support legal arguments and processes, to build a criminal case; research is “forensic”,  in the classic sense, when its findings are discussed, presented, or argued openly or publicly.

Research might even be considered “forensic”, in a metaphorical sense, simply for paying attention to the little things, for being “highly amenable to fine-grained identification of relevant minutiae.” Words and phrases can be appropriated and twisted to suit just about any purpose, of course. That’s not what I’m suggesting. What I am arguing for is a sensible return to basics, and a sensible application of those basics to contemporary interests, issues, and sensibilities. I am arguing for an understanding of research as a “forensic” undertaking when it is conducted or presented for purposes that lie somewhere along a continuum of the public and legal elements of its original meaning; when it is the work of public intellectuals engaging policy-relevant issues, for example, or when it is policy-relevant research conducted at the behest of public bodies such as government ministries and the like.

This is a rough draft of first thoughts on a wide variety of interconnected issues. It is informed in part by my own experiences as an institutionally-embedded analyst, professional research consultant, and academic. It is inspired in part by recent discussion of public intellectuals and alleged academic disengagement from the issues that matter to mainstream life.  It is articulated largely in ignorance of both public history and forensic science, and of what these two important fields have to say on the matter of forensic research. And it is offered here with the promise of more thoughtful and better supported inquiry to follow.

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