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FORCE – Forensic Culture in Europe, 1930-2000


Interview with Sara Serrano-Martínez

The project is now well underway and the team have started to work on their individual projects. For the first couple of blogs, a brief interview with each member of our team will introduce the different projects that make up “Forensic Cultures”. The first interview is with Sara Serano-Martínez, who studies the forensic culture of Spain.

Could you briefly explain your research project within FORCE?

I am studying the activities of forensic experts in penal matters in Spain during the period 1931-1975, which includes the Second Republic, the Spanish Civil War, and the Franco Dictatorship. I approach this subject in two combined ways: on the one hand, I consider the legal and institutional development of their professional activities; on the other hand, I analyse their daily practices and relationships as forensic experts. Both aspects are connected since I tackle them from a social history of science point of view, studying the material conditions, the sociabilitésand the dynamics of validation and legitimation of expertise that are involved in defining and shaping their positions and professional and knowledge practices. The cases through which I will study this topic are delimited, initially, by three penal types (just like in all the other projects within the FORCe project): infanticide, murder, and rape. However, if a reduction of scope is necessary, the focus will be put on the first of these three types, infanticide. Geographically, although I am still struggling with obtaining permission from the relevant archives, I already know that I will gather the court files of two or three Provincial Audiences, including the one in the province of Girona.


What did you do before you joined this project?

I obtained my Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy at the Universitat de Barcelona (2016), and then I specialized in History of Science with a one-year Master’s degree at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and many other Catalan universities (2017), presenting a thesis on the medical discursive approaches to the topic of suicide in Spain, ca. 1926-1936, which was supervised by Annette Mülberger. After that, I obtained a JAE-Intro Scholarship for conducting a two-month research project on the conceptualization of disability (concretely, on the problems that a conception of disability as human diversity can pose for the process of informed consent), which I developed in the Philosophy Institute of the the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) in Madrid under the supervision of Mario Toboso-Martín (2017). From then until I obtained my position in this project, I worked as a shop assistant in the textile sector in Barcelona.


What exactly fascinates you about the history of forensics?

Studying forensic expertise touches upon two crucial points. First, the organization of the administration of justice, especially regarding crucial points within the sub-field of philosophy of law, such as the fundaments of jurisdiction or the relationship between the values of justice and truth. This first point is extremely relevant in the context of the Franco Dictatorship: firstly, because the organization of power was one of the key issues of disagreement between the diverse political groups behind the only party that was legally recognized; secondly, because the administration of justice was one of the main mechanisms for ideological prosecution, repression and social control; and finally, because the collaboration with this mechanism of people that did not belong to the judiciary (and we could include scientists and physicians in this group) is key to understand the supports, the permanence and the changes in the Dictatorship. Second, forensics are also linked to the ideological implications and the practices of collaboration that scientific institutions and positions imply and/or allow in a determinate socio-economic and political context. This a fascinating point both for understanding the historical paths of sciences and for present and further inquiries into the value and problems in the institutionalization of knowledge.


Can you tell us about a source, case or object that your find particularly fascinating?

I am especially fascinated by the social relationships and knowledge dynamics that are present in cases of infanticide and abortion (two penal types that were frequently intertwined in my period of study). The statements of accused women give a great deal of importance to the authority that other women (older sisters, neighbours) possessed regarding the knowledge about the body in gestation or the moment of delivery. Furthermore, the court files in these cases may allow us to know more about non-professional midwives and their use of technological devices. This last question, the question of the tools or material instruments, was crucial during penal procedures, both because of their mechanical traces, that experts tried to follow or read, and because the accused had to face a very likely connection between her knowledge or ignorance regarding the object and her penal responsibility.


Why do you think this project is important? 

Apart from the two philosophical points that it can shed light on, and that I explained in my answer above, I think that this project is important as a historiographical inquiry for two main reasons. First, because it establishes a solid bridge between the history of law and institutions and the history of science, in a clearly interdisciplinary project. This will provide a rich perspective for understanding the roots of two important institutional fields within the frame of modern States: justice and science. Second, because many historians have used and are using court files as sources (mainly social historians, historians of popular cultures, and gender or women’s historians), and a systematic inquiry into the one of the most complex actors that appear in these files, the expert, can serve as a reference or basis from which these historians, who are not working in the field of the history of science, will be able to go further in their analysis of other actors in the procedures: namely, lay people as the accused, the victim or as witnesses. A parallel benefit could be obtained from projects that study the police institutions and practices: the idea is to map out the position and consequences of these actors who were collaborating with, or were assistants of, the judiciary, so that we can subsequently, or at the same time, have a clearer view on the contextual conditions under which the voices of people in court files’ statements were heard, or at least recorded.