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SOC3091 : CSI Newcastle: The Sociology of the Forensic Sciences

Semester 1 Credit Value: 20
ECTS Credits: 10.0


Forensic science has become ubiquitous in contemporary society: from news reports and television programmes where white-coat wearing investigators single-handedly resolve criminal cases to the use of biometric information (including fingerprints) to unlock the latest technologies, our culture has become saturated with the knowledge and practices of the forensic sciences. Given the importance of forensic science to contemporary culture, it is incumbent on sociologists to identify and explore not only the effects this science has on society but also the extent to which its claims are legitimate. To this end, in this module we will ask the question ‘what can sociology tell us about the forensic sciences?’.

Drawing heavily upon the literatures from the Sociology of Science and Science and Technology Studies (for instance the works of David Bloor, Barry Barnes, Bruno Latour, John Law and Harry Collins), the topics in this module have been chosen to challenge dominant understandings of science (and forensic science in particular, see for instance the works of Sheila Jasanoff, Michael Lynch, Simon Cole and Gary Edmond), especially the notion that it is somehow outside or separate from society. As such, this module takes as its starting point the belief that science is inherently social and that its success is largely due to the role of interests, authority and dogmatism that are normally understood to be opposed to good science.

Challenging traditional representations of science (e.g. science as value-free), we will conclude the module by engaging with the recent debates around media representations of forensic science and asking whether television programmes (e.g. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation) have resulted in miscarriages of justice with the jurors in real cases comparing the evidence presented to them to the fictional version and finding it lacking.

Following the main argument of the module, we will argue that there are in fact multiple CSI Effects, including an increase in the credibility provided to expert witnesses in courtrooms rather than a decrease; we will also argue, following the works of Troy Duster and Barbara Prainsack, that the greater interest in forensic science is resulting in a renewed belief in the importance of the body in our popular understanding of crime and the expectation that certain bodies (in particular non-white bodies) are inherently more criminogenic.

The module aims to:
•       Challenge students’ understandings of forensic science and highlight the importance of various social practices (authority, trust, tacit knowledge, virtual witnessing etc.) for successful science
•       Introduce students to the range of sociological literatures around science (and forensic science in particular) from the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge and Science and Technology Studies
•       Highlight the consequences of the forensification of culture, in particular the ways we understand the body

Please note that while this module does engage with the detail of scientific knowledge, following this module does not require any prior scientific training. All that you need will be discussed during the module.

Outline Of Syllabus

Following an initial introduction to the literature around the social construction of science (for instance the different approaches to the social studies of science highlighted by David Bloor, Bruno Latour and Harry Collins), the module will explore the various ways in which social practices are inherent within so-called ‘good science’. For instance we will discuss the importance of scientific communities in maintaining the legitimacy of ‘facts’, the ways scientific practices are presented as standardised when they are often performed in divergent ways and the fact that even the idea of objectivity is itself socially contingent (see for instance the works of Michael Lynch, Simon Cole, Steve Shapin, Sheila Jasanoff and Stefan Timmermans, amongst others). This will raise the question of how we separate ‘good’ and ‘junk’ science, which will be answered with reference to recent debates around the admissibility of expert evidence for court and by identifying the important role legal institutions play in demarcating some forms of science as ‘good’ or ‘junk’ when there may not be any particular problems with the science itself (sociologists that will be studied in this section will be Gary Edmond, David Mercer, Sheila Jasanoff and Steven Yearley). Having challenged the traditional cultural representations of science, at the end we will explore the recent debate around the CSI Effect, a debate purely around representations of science, and demonstrate that there are far more (and more troubling) CSI Effects than those that have come to the attention of the media at the present time (see for instance the works of Simon Cole and Rachel Dios-Villa, Barbara Prainsack and Troy Duster).

Teaching Methods

Teaching Activities
Category Activity Number Length Student Hours Comment
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesLecture122:0024:00N/A
Guided Independent StudyAssessment preparation and completion196:0096:00Reading around lectures plus preparation and completion of assessment 1 and 2.
Guided Independent StudyDirected research and reading88:0064:008 hours preparation for each seminar
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesSmall group teaching81:008:00N/A
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesWorkshops22:004:00General feedback sessions: 1st after first assignment and 2nd after the two guided independent study
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesWorkshops22:004:00Students to individually present the case study that will be the focus of their second assessment an
Teaching Rationale And Relationship

Lectures introduce students to the main conceptual ideas and frameworks covered in the module in order to help them comprehend the required and supplementary readings.

For the small group teaching, in this case, seminars will provide students with the space to reflect and discuss the ideas and approaches within the social studies of science literature amongst their peers, as well as an opportunity to clarify any misunderstandings with the seminar leader. The seminars will also enable students to develop their critical listening, argumentation and presentation skills via the usual process of discussion.

The guided independent study will involve each student individually presenting the case study that will be the focus of their second assessment. This will enable them to present a short, almost draft form of their assignment and receive formative feedback, not only from the module convenor but also from their peers. Again this is envisaged as a space for developing critical listening, and argumentation skills as well as their presentation skills.

There will also be two general feedback sessions which will be run as workshops. In the first workshop the convenor will provide the students with general positive and negative feedback concerning the first assignment, which will lead into discussions as well as practice exercises for further developing the necessary analytical or presentation skills. Similarly the second workshop will be held after the two guided independent study sessions and will involve general feedback and practical exercises before the submission of assignment two.

Assessment Methods

The format of resits will be determined by the Board of Examiners

Other Assessment
Description Semester When Set Percentage Comment
Case study1M602,500 words
Essay1M401,500 words
Formative Assessments
Description Semester When Set Comment
Oral Presentation1MPresentation in preparation of assignment two (case study 1) and held during the guided independent study period.
Assessment Rationale And Relationship

The first assignment will be an essay based around the social studies of science literature, in order to assess student understanding of what will be for some a new set of ideas before going into the more application based second assignment. Students will be offered a choice of four questions focused around the main conceptual themes from the introductory sessions of the module and will be required to answer one. This assignment will assess Intended Knowledge Outcome 1, as well as Intended Skills Outcomes 1 and 2.

The second assignment will be a student-identified case study of the representation of forensic science from the media (be it a television programme, news article or website). Applying the concepts covered throughout the module, students will be first required to outline the key ideas about the ways the representation reinforces the positivist understanding of forensic science, e.g. forensic science as ‘good science’, and then secondly, drawing upon the social studies of science literature, identify some of the more problematic consequences of such a representation. This assignment will assess Intended Knowledge Outcomes 2, 3 and 4 as well as Intended Skills Outcomes 1 and 2 (Outcome 3 will be formatively assessed in the classroom).

The resit will be 100% formal examination, 3 hours in duration.

Reading Lists