Forensic Political Inquiry

I have an emerging interest in what I call “forensic political inquiry”. Over the last few years I’ve drafted a few rough notes on the idea of “forensic history” (and forensic research in other scholarly disciplines). More recently I’ve started to formalize it all as a central part of my research agenda. This page provides a crude overview:

The Project

Over the course of my career I ‘ve developed an interest in forensic processes and outcomes, and the related use of case study approaches, methods and techniques. I have a general interest in exploring this conceptually and in disciplinary terms, and a specific interest in advancing the topic in practical and applied terms – particularly as it relates to research on illicit wartime economies, commissions of inquiry, war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. This posits forensic political inquiry as a policy-relevant vehicle that touches on elements of political science and critique. I allude to this in my forthcoming book, Streets Without Joy, which deals explicitly with notions of precedent and political uses of historical subject matter. My ambition is to expand this into a wider program of research, teaching and publications.

The Literature

To progress this from the realm of thinking out loud to more formal investigation, I’ve focused my initial efforts on building a working bibliography. There is a rich body of literature available to anyone who cares to look. In its substance, it implies the possibility of forensic political inquiry, or political forensis. Commentary on this has been pretty wide ranging. Thomas Carothers referred to it in 1998 as a “revival” of the rule of law in international politics. The architectural theorist Eyal Weizmann more recently (and prominently) described it as the emergence of a “forensic aesthetic” in the latter half of the 20th Century.

Carothers and Weizmann were addressing points, each in their own way, that should be, in my view, of interest to historians of international politics and international relations, especially as they relate to:

  • How armed conflicts are fought and resolved;
  • The vectors of legally consequential intent and action that can be discerned in their planning, conduct and outcomes; and
  • The political relevance and impact of their legal consequentialism.

Those are pretty broad categories, but closer examination of the literature suggests three things, each of which serves as a conceptual anchor point.

First, there is an appreciation of a forensic turn in some academic disciplines, but much of this is coloured by the dominance of scientific and technical disciplines and scientific evidence in modern forensic inquiry. Discussions of media effects associated with a forensic turn (the “CSI effect”) play into this but privilege the popularization of forensic science rather than wider socialization of the political dynamics that underpin or shape such developments. It thus remains to be determined whether “forensic political inquiry” is something genuinely new or simply old wine in new bottles.

Second, political scientists have produced scholarship that touches implicitly on the forensic turn or that could be retrospectively cast in such terms, but they have yet to explicitly engage with it. This is a gap. There is much to be said, for example, about the politics of scientific evidence in consequential legal cases (or legally consequential cases), political analysis of forensic processes, politics scholars as expert witnesses in the courtroom, or indeed,  examination of forensic media effects akin to the “CNN effect” in foreign policy decisions or the “Jack Bauer / 24 effect” on anti-torture norms.

Third, there are empirical and methodological implications of the forensic turn that impact directly on how politics scholars and students approach their subject matter. Exploratory discussions of the kind proposed here imply a questioning of what makes any particularly research discipline “forensic”, what lessons other disciplines have identified from their engagements with forensic matters, and what the development of social science and political science research can lend to an exploration of forensic political inquiry.

Rough Notes

Michael A. Innes, “A Mixture Containing More Snares Than Rewards,” Notes (14 September 2019). URL: https://michaelinnes.net/2019/09/14/forensic-history-a-mixture-containing-more-snares-than-rewards/;

Michael A. Innes, “Left in Folders Next to the Trivial and the Mundane,” Notes (10 August 2018). URL: https://michaelinnes.net/2017/10/08/left-in-folders-next-to-the-trivial-and-the-mundane/;

Michael A. Innes, “Of Which The Essence Thereafter Remains Unexamined,” Notes (08 July 2018). URL: https://michaelinnes.net/2018/08/07/of-which-the-essence-thereafter-remains-unexamined/;

Michael A. Innes, “Bestowing Infinate Pains on Discovering What Actually Happened,” Notes (23 October 2016). URL: https://michaelinnes.net/2016/10/23/forensic-history-bestowing-infinite-pains-on-discovering-what-actually-happened/;

Michael A. Innes, “In Praise of Paper,” Notes (25 March 2014). URL: https://michaelinnes.net/2014/03/25/in-praise-of-paper/;

Michael A. Innes, “Framing Forensics,” Notes (27 February 2014), URL: https://michaelinnes.net/2014/02/27/framing-forensics/.

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