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SOC3091 : CSI Newcastle: The Sociology of the Forensic Sciences (Inactive)

  • Inactive for Year: 2020/21
  • Module Leader(s): Dr Gethin Rees
  • Owning School: Geography, Politics & Sociology
  • Teaching Location: Newcastle City Campus
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

Module leaders are revising this content in light of the Covid 19 restrictions.
Revised and approved detail information will be available by 17 August.

Assessment Methods

Module leaders are revising this content in light of the Covid 19 restrictions.
Revised and approved detail information will be available by 17 August.

Reading Lists