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Identifying Bodies with Victor Toom: New Research in Science, Technology & Human Values

Abby Kinchy

30 December, 2015

World Trade Center Tribute in Light[All photos: Victor Toom]

In this series of Backchannels posts, we’ll be highlighting new research in the 4S journals, ST&HV and ESTS. Here, Backchannels interviews Dr. Victor Toom, an anthropologist of scientific practice, about his article, published today in ST&HV. The article, entitled, “Whose body is it? Technolegal materialization of victims’ bodies and remains after the World Trade Center terrorist attacks,” empirically analyzes how victims’ remains were recovered, identified, repatriated and retained after the World Trade Center terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Dr. Toom was a visiting research fellow at the Institute for Public Knowledge, New York University, and recently began a position at Goethe University in Frankfurt/Main, Germany, after working for 5 years at Northumbria University in Newcastle upon Tyne, England.


Backchannels: Your research focuses on the identification of victims of mass human fatality incidents like the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York. What brought you to this research topic?

Victor Toom: My PhD at the University of Amsterdam considered the sociomaterial practices of forensic DNA typing and databasing in the Netherlands, in particular how such technologies were used to solve crimes. So as it goes in STS, I read a lot of scientific articles, protocols and standards, and found out that forensic technologies used to solve crimes are also used to identify victims of disasters. This latter practice often is referred to as “Disaster Victim Identification,” or DVI. And I thought that, as a scholar, DVI practices are really interesting as the research no longer is about the state of law and some of its fundamental governing principles, but instead about families who have to cope with great tragedy, uncertainty about their loved one’s fate, grief, the practice of mourning, and death rituals.

So one day in 2012, I submitted a research proposal for a British three-year Leverhulme Trust Early Career Research Fellowship, and in which I indicated that I wanted to research the DVI operation in the wake of the WTC terrorist attacks with a particular focus on the forensic, bureaucratic, legal and emotional realities. I was delighted that the Trust decided to fund my research.

What often happens in the wake of mass disaster is that decisions are made on behalf of the families, and information often flows only partly to the families. So instead of giving a voice to victims’ families, they often are being patronized or kept in the dark

Backchannels: What made the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks an interesting case to study?

VT: As a “case”, a horrible word indeed, the aftermath of the WTC attacks is interesting for many reasons, but I’ll limit myself here to three reasons.

First, the post-9/11 DVI operation is and was—together with efforts to identify victims of the 1995 Srebrenica genocide—an unprecedented forensic effort and hence the scientific, bureaucratic, legal and practical challenges were overwhelming. What kind of mechanisms have been invented and rolled out in the wake of 9/11 to facilitate the identification of victims? Or what new technologies and innovations have been used to identify smaller parts or degraded DNA?

Secondly, the DVI operation in New York City is ongoing. Of the 2,750 WTC victims, almost 22,000 remains have been recovered and DNA tested enabling the identification of more than 1,600 victims and, consequently, providing surviving family members with the ability to bury their loved one, having a place to go to, certainty. The other side of the coin is that more than 1,100 victims were never identified. Their families do not have “certainty” about their loved one’s fate, they have no place to go to, had no burial. Such horrific facts open up the possibility to analyze, for example, the meaning of bodies and burials, and the (material) practices of memorialization and commemoration.

And thirdly, family members of 9/11 victims have been very active in all sorts of post-9/11 discourses and practices. So one thing I’m really fascinated about is that victims’ families became a “partner” in the DVI operation. And due to this position, some family members became “lay experts” on DVI and forensic genetics themselves. Another issue I’m interested in is how all kinds of family groups started doing advocacy work, and got involved in for example commemoration and memorialization of 9/11, its aftermath, and its victims. 

So considering the DVI operation in the wake of the terrorist attacks in New York allows for articulating all kinds of topics, including typical STS issues (e.g. standards, lay-expertise, biopower, technolegal materialization, innovation, forensic science) and cultural anthropology topics (e.g. burial rituals, grief, kinship, death, group formation, commemoration, and the body).

Wall painting, Corner of Ave A and E. 9th St.

DVI practices are really interesting as the research no longer is about the state of law and some of its fundamental governing principles, but instead about families who have to cope with great tragedy, uncertainty about their loved one’s fate, grief, the practice of mourning, and death rituals.

Backchannels: What challenges did you overcome to complete the study?

VT: I guess that the biggest challenge is related to access on two different levels. First, I’m from Amsterdam, during my fellowship I was employed by a British university, and my research was in New York City. So there were only a few months per year that I could physically be in New York, and luckily the Leverhulme Trust provided the (financial) opportunity to stay in New York and do my research there for three consecutive summers. But ideally, I would of course prefer staying in New York much longer, and do (1) more interviews with inter alia victims’ families, forensic practitioners, officials, experts, rescue and recovery workers, members of advocacy organization, clergy, and psychologists, and (2) follow up on more issues that I think are interesting. Second, because 9/11 still is such a thorny and politicized issue, many people and organizations were reluctant to consent being interviewed by me.

Having said that, I was surprised about the willingness of many persons and organizations to meet and share their experiences with me. Everyone who has been involved in the aftermath of 9/11 and that I met has been, to a greater or lesser extent, personally affected by the events, either as a family member, a friend or professionally. The persons who decide to participate in my project typically are persons who previously spoke about their experiences, and oftentimes the family members who I spoke with are also involved in 9/11-related advocacy endeavors.

What may be considered a weak spot in the research methodology is that I only spoke to the group of people who previously spoke about their experiences publically, and hence I could trace them and reach out to them. Whether their experiences provide a representative sample for the many more people who don’t speak out is something I of course don’t know. I, however, belief that significant life-events like coping with loss, receiving or not receiving the remains of a loved one, or practices of identification or commemorating a loved one are experiences which are deeply personal and different to anyone. So I hope that my analyses, including the book I’m writing currently, capture the various positions of a continuum of experiences and emotions of dealing with loss, death, identification, and commemoration.

Backchannels: The interviews must have been difficult.

VT: Yes, and especially with family members of course. Going back to the weeks and months following 9/11 during an interview may re-traumatize a respondent. In one instance, a family member got really upset while telling me about her experiences. I asked her if she wanted to stop the interview. And she said she wanted to continue “because it is important, and because I want people to remember, to not forget.” In another interview, a mother showed me a picture of her son, and said “look at him” indicating he is a person, not victim-number such and such, but her son. And I think this is what motivates many family members in deciding to being interviewed: to keep the memory about their loved ones alive.

Pictures taken of missing person posters in the Family Assistance Center in the months after 9/11

Backchannels: Can you tell us a bit about how you are using the concept of materialization in the paper you’ve just published?

VT: I love teasing out metaphors with double or multiple meanings, so kind of ambiguous concepts that enable me to articulate two different processes or realities at the same time. In the paper I focus on the 22,000 or so recovered human remains to ask whose body is it, and I examine this by considering the metaphor of “materialization.” Within STS, and actor-network theory in particular, the idea that things materialize has been important. So in the paper, the focus is on the human remains from the WTC victims, and how WTC victims’ bodies literally materialize when it is distinguished from WTC debris or when it is forensically examined. But materialization has a second connotation significant in DVI practices. Take for example lawyers who talk about a material witness or material evidence meaning that that witness or piece evidence gains legal relevance. So by using the metaphor of materialization, I am able to simultaneously articulate techoscientific and legal processes of materializing remains, their technolegal materialization. This notion is also captured in the title of the paper, as asking whose body it is is as much about personhood and identity as it is about ownership of, or custody over, human remains.

Backchannels: You’re also talking about the law in interesting ways. How do you see your work in relation to other STS studies that deal with legal procedures?

VT: On the empirical level, I hope that STS peers find the paper interesting as it argues—although implicitly—that the law is everywhere, yet in many STS scholarship the law as ordering mechanism has been blackboxed. The work of scholars like Sheila Jasanoff, Michael Lynch, Simon Cole and others, and their analyses of how scientific knowledge enters the court of law, are great inspirations and superb sources for understanding the mechanisms of the US legal system and its handling of expert witnesses in legal cases. However, coming from another legal tradition where courts are not organized according the adversarial but inquisitorial logics, where the law itself is not in accordance with the common law but civil law tradition, and feeling more affiliated with actor-network theory and its material semiotic realities than the sociology of scientific knowledge-approaches, I also felt that representations of the law by Jasanoff or Lynch and even Bruno Latour’s The making of law do not do justice to the unruly practices of the law and what and how it generates. So what I try to do with this and other papers is to tease out how the law helps to, to use another concept with a double meaning, “enact” practices, objects and normativities outside of courtrooms. Those categories of objects that are subject of technolegal materialization are wide and diverse. Think for example about certification processes for drugs, embryos and fetuses that acquire particular rights, or suspect’s bodies that move through the criminal justice system.

asking whose body it is is as much about personhood and identity as it is about ownership of, or custody over, human remains

Backchannels: Your work considers the involvement of victims’ families in forensic efforts to ‘bring back home’ victims. Does your research have implications for how disaster victims are identified in the future?

VT: Yes, I hope that this article and my other (forthcoming) work on the DVI in NYC opens up new avenues for thinking about the role of victims’ families after catastrophes and other life-changing events. So what I learned from my project in New York, where the Medical Examiner put the families central, is that families should come first. Families should receive information before they see it on the news. If decisions are to be made, inform families about those decisions. If possible, try to include them in the decision-making process. Be open, transparent, accountable and empathic. But what often happens in the wake of mass disaster is that decisions are made on behalf of the families, and information often flows only partly to the families. So instead of giving a voice to victims’ families, they often are being patronized or kept in the dark. Which is a really stupid reflex, because who else than those directly affected by a tragedy knows best what and when they need something. So the advice is to never underestimate the capabilities of victims’ families to articulate what they need and when they need, and hence to provide them the opportunity to become a partner in a disaster victim identification operation.  

Backchannels: You have just begun a new position at Goethe University in Germany. What is next on your research agenda?

VT: I just finished my Leverhulme Trust fellowship and now two big things are on my agenda. First, I’m writing a book on the DVI operation in New York City. And the only thing I need is time which is problematic as the second big thing is that I just started a two-year research project enabled by a Marie Curie Research Fellowship. The application was submitted with Professor Thomas Scheffer from Goethe University, whose work about legal practices I find really compelling. In addition, there are great and very smart colleagues at Goethe University, all of them are doing very interesting research. So the next two years will be exciting.

My new project is entitled “Accounting for genocide: legal and scientific accounting practices in the wake of the Srebrenica genocide.” I will be researching two different accounting practices following 1995 Srebrenica genocide. First, I’ll look at the practices of determining how many people were killed during the massacre and who they were. So I’ll look at what kind of statistics, evidence, witnesses and forensic science were utilized, and what it is that they articulate exactly and hence leave unarticulated. The second set of practices that I’ll consider are the trials against political and military leaders like Karadzic, Mladic or Popovic at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, The Netherlands. Interestingly, involvement of families is essential in each of the accounting practices. So one of the questions I’m interested in is analyzing how families become involved in those practices. Another issue I find highly interesting is how the ICTY has to operate in an international criminal law context where facts and legitimacy are hard to establish, unruly objects.

Backchannels: Thank you for sharing your research with us!

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Backchannels / Reflections

Commentary on the current and future state of the field or subfields within science and technology studies. Can include interviews, meditations on particular concepts or methods, biography / autobiography, essays, and other more personal and less formal writings.