Academic journal article Studies in Sociology of Science

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

Academic journal article Studies in Sociology of Science

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

Article excerpt

"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.


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. …

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