Tracing the 'Messy' History of Forensic DNA Analysis in Canada

By Quinlan, Andrea | Studies in Sociology of Science, December 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Tracing the 'Messy' History of Forensic DNA Analysis in Canada


Quinlan, Andrea, Studies in Sociology of Science


"DNA identification methods have been controversial from the very beginning, not just for social and legal reasons, but for scientific ones" (Gerlach, 2004, p.41).

The history of scientific controversy surrounding forensic DNA analysis in the Canadian legal system is largely invisible. It is rarely discussed in the media and is often disregarded in scientific and legal practice. Since its introduction to the Canadian legal system in the late 1980s, DNA analysis has been used extensively to identify and trace perpetrators of crime (Gerlach, 2004). It is assumed to have the power to reveal truth about a criminal act (Quinlan, Fogel, & Quinlan, 2010). This presumed power of DNA analysis conceals and masks its own history of controversy. Tracing this history, however, is a necessary step towards understanding the contemporary usage of forensic DNA technology in the Canadian legal system.

This paper will explore the complex and 'messy' history of DNA analysis and its integration into the medicolegal system. Drawing on the methodological insights from Actor-Network Theory, I will outline some of the important contributors to the invention of DNA analysis and discuss its invention in the context of the Sexual Assault Evidence Kit (SAEK), a tool used to collect DNA evidence in sexual assault cases. I will trace the multitude of dissenting voices of feminists, legal professionals, and scientists who initially challenged the efficacy and reliability of forensic DNA evidence. Before doing so, however, I turn briefly to a discussion of Actor-Network Theory (ANT) and the methodological challenges in studying scientific controversy.

BLACK BOX NARRATIVES

Historical studies of scientific controversy in the field of Actor-Network Theory often fall within the confines of a similar plot line (Dugdale, 1999). As Dugdale contends, "many studies of controversy tell stories of convergence, of movement from difference to sameness, of a narrowing from many competing versions to a single stabilized 'reality'" (Dugdale, 1999, p. 113) [emphasis in original]. To employ the language of another well known Actor-Network theorist, Bruno Latour (1987), ANT studies of controversy are often accounts of "black boxing" (Latour, 1987, p. 3).

Latour describes a 'black box' as that which shields complexity and controversy from view. A black box, once it has been successfully closed, appears to be a "good machine", operating to produce what are considered to be reliable and meaningful outputs (Latour, 1987, p. 3). As Latour (1999) suggests, "when a machine runs efficiently, when a matter of fact is settled, one needs to focus only on its inputs and outputs and not on its internal complexity" (p. 304). In science, black boxing is akin to the making of scientific fact (Epstein, 1996). Describing scientific facts, Epstein asserts, "masked beneath their hard exterior is an entire social history of actions and decisions, experiments and arguments, claims and counterclaims--often enough a disorderly history of contingency, controversy, and uncertainty" (Epstein, 1996, p. 28). It is this 'messiness' of competing voices that the black box renders invisible (Law, 2004). To quote Epstein again, "the process of closing a black box is successful when contingency is forgotten, controversy is smoothed over, and uncertainty is bracketed" (Epstein, 1996, p. 28). The black box is thus what creates order out of chaos, complexity, and uncertainty.

Many ANT stories have illustrated the construction of black boxes in science (e.g. Epstein, 1996; Latour, 1987; Latour, 1988). The 'black box narrative' in ANT begins with a messy collection of competing voices. These voices, of both human and non-human actors, are traced to their point of convergence and singularity.

This study presents a different narrative. While it begins in controversy, it does not end in singularity. Rather, this work tells stories of complex institutional action that, despite its possible appearance of being successfully black boxed, continues to exist in contention.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Tracing the 'Messy' History of Forensic DNA Analysis in Canada
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.