Sponsored by: Members’ Programmatic, Advisory and Advocacy Committee
Of interest to: Practicing and Applied Anthropologists, Teachers of Anthropology in Community Colleges, Students, Those Involved in Mentoring Activities
Primary Theme: Immigration/Migration/Citizenship
Secondary Theme: Ethics
The intimacy with which anthropologists come to know the communities with whom we work, and their locations within local, regional, and global contexts, provides a form of empirical knowledge that few other researchers hold. Such knowledge carries with it an immense responsibility to use it ethically and for the greatest good possible. While anthropologists have long been recognized for our contributions to legal proceedings on issues relative to indigenous people (Donovan and Anderson 2005; Field 1999; Rodriguez 2014; Rosen 1977), our contributions as expert witnesses in ICE and DHS proceedings and in criminal court have emerged as one of our more significant roles outside of academia. The nature of an expert witness - as a person whose opinion by virtue of education, training, certification, skills or experience is accepted by the courts as an expert - is invoked to assist the judge/jury in ascertaining the fact(s) relative to the case. In many cases, this presents ethical and moral dilemmas precisely because we may need to use our knowledge and experience to verify the negative, sordid elements of the people and communities with whom we work in order to present the data necessary for the judge/jury to decide a case. Additionally, we may find ourselves contributing to essentialized portrayals of complex social and political conditions. Rosen wrote as early as 1977 that there are few roles that present anthropologists with “…more serious scholarly and ethical problems than those posed by their appearance on legal proceedings…” (1977: 555). That is, what we disclose in order to provide a deeper understanding of phenomena may require us to document issues that conflict with our desire to protect the communities with whom we work. How do we balance these dilemmas? Campbell and Slack argue that the legal field “is based on a particular, narrow, binary conception of truth” and that the way in which we must consider the truth that we hold “…entails an important divergence from academic anthropological practice in general and ethnography more specifically” (2017:329). Many of us learn how to do this over time, and in many cases, at the expense of our early clients. Serving in this capacity is an important way to make anthropology relevant. But it also requires critical reflection on how our knowledge and experiences can be restructured and communicated to fit within the legal system’s narrow, individually-oriented, fact-driven discourses while holding true to our ways of questioning finite truth and homogenizing narratives of culture and practices. This roundtable discussion brings together anthropologists experienced in expert witness testimony along with a renowned human rights attorney to discuss how to be an effective, and ethical, expert witness in today’s criminal and asylum courts.