My excitement quickly turned into disappointment when opening my printed thesis, “Culture on trial: an ethnographic study of the de/constructing of culture in Finnish law courts”, to page 99 to take this test. Starting with ‘Pihlajamäki’ and ending with ‘Riles’, the 99th page of my compilation thesis is part of the reference list. While the bibliography of a thesis is rarely its most exciting talking point, the page 99 does in fact provide me with a fitting point of departure to reflect on some of the core questions of the thesis. Indeed, a list of references undoubtedly draws from expertise and authority – the two qualities that are extremely central to the knowledge production practices connected to the criminal trials of my study too.
In my PhD research, I studied Finnish criminal trials that involved people from cultural minorities. I participated in thirty-eight trials, carried out five expert interviews and analysed the court decisions from 230 criminal cases. I studied the ways in which “culture” was explicitly invoked in a course of a trial and whose expertise was employed in the process. I examined, for instance, whose knowledge was employed when a court document stated that in “the Kurdish culture” verbal death threats are easily made. I found that in the studied trials no trained cultural experts, such as anthropologists, were utilised but instead informal cultural expertise played a significant role in some of the cases. Indeed, eyewitnesses and interpreters ended up acting as informal cultural experts at times which raises important questions on authority: who has the authority to make claims about cultures in trials?
In my thesis, I argue that anthropologists could have made welcome contributions to the “culture talk” of Finnish trials. Whether anthropologists want to offer their expertise in such cases, however, is another matter. Considering the ease with which “culture” becomes part of the everyday legal language in court, it is quite ironic how uneasy several anthropologists become when asked to participate in these discussions. Much of the international scholarship on cultural expertise stresses the dissatisfaction of anthropologists whose reflective accounts on cultural identities tend to be turned into stereotypes in legal argumentation (Hoehne, 2016; Loperena, 2020). My study suggests, however, that cultures are discussed in trials with or without the experts’ involvement and that involving trained cultural experts might help in steering the conversations on cultures into more informed directions. Perhaps anthropologists, then, could claim increased authority over culture in court in Finland – and elsewhere – in the future.
Cooke, T. (2021). Culture on trial: an ethnographic study of the de/constructing of culture in Finnish law courts. University of Oulu, PhD.
Hoehne, M. V. (2016). The strategic use of epistemological positions in a power-laden arena: Anthropological expertise in asylum cases in the UK. International Journal of Law in Context, 12(3), 253–271.
Loperena, C. A. (2020). Adjudicating indigeneity: Anthropological testimony in the inter-American court of human rights. American Anthropologist, 122(3), 595–605.