What death says about life

Forensic medicine makes it possible to produce administrative documentation used in court decisions. Ethnography of the morgue in India shows that scientific ethics are also part of social and professional constraints which shape expertise.

With his work Words from the morgue. Forensic medicine in North India, Fabien Provost publishes an anthropological study based on a field survey carried out in a hospital environment in North India. The ethnographic framework is based more precisely on observations and interviews carried out with forensic doctors, morgue attendants and other actors who participate in the medico-legal trajectory of dead bodies. Fabien Provost reminds us from the first lines of the first chapter, morgues are generally marginal spaces, dismissed and assigned to the basements in hospital complexes. This spatial marginalization accompanies and reinforces a social stigma (Goffman, 1975 (1963)) towards those who work with corpses in India. For this study, the anthropologist opens the doors to a socially castigated world, regularly facing popular and mediatized criticism from associative activists, journalists and Indian intellectuals, regarding the unsanitary conditions of structures, the poor management of dead bodies, and accusations of fraud in the face of judicial issues of medico-legal examinations imposed by a legal framework. The researcher's interest in daily activities in legal medicine focuses specifically on the methods of producing administrative documentation (autopsy reports in particular) and its use in court decisions.

A cross-cutting subject across all the chapters of the work, Fabien Provost questions autopsy practice and medical writing to report on a scientific ethics, in the way in which legal medicine submits to a bureaucratic and legal regulatory framework. The social and professional constraints encountered by specialists in this medicine, the work shows how forensic doctors sometimes break the rules to develop diagnoses which define the cause and manner of a person's death. A pistemology (the critical analysis of the methodology of science) of the narration (as a form of narration) of dead bodies in investigation reports makes it possible to highlight the discursive and technical processes and issues which shape judicial science in India . More broadly, the author demonstrates that the apprehension of the way in which science is done belongs to an interpretation of the social context (historical, religious, etc.) in which it takes place.

Writing as a process of selection

Today, legal medicine in India rests on a historical and administrative base marked by the colonial regime and the British domination of the territory until XXe century, and a source of scientific and technical know-how. By describing the subtle differences in usage between the terms laceration And incision to designate injuries (p. 64-71), the author explains that the ability of forensic doctors formulate socially acceptable statements in concrete interaction situations (p. 66) is also based on writing and communication skills. And that consistent use of language is a way for forensic pathologists themselves to distinguish between specialists and non-specialists. Scientific and technical know-how is therefore shaped by the experience of professionals in this specialized medicine, and the writing of medico-legal reports must also be analyzed as a capacity to transcribe a circumstantial reality. The work demonstrates on this subject that medical writing in morgues depends on a narrative context, and that it thereby produces discourses framed by a system subject mainly to the professional and decision-making authority of judges. An analysis of the investigation reports nevertheless demonstrates the way in which forensic doctors can guide the reading of the conclusions of the autopsies carried out:

() expression could be possible is only used (in autopsy reports) when doctors are certain of their opinions, that is to say when the objects evaluated correspond exactly to the current compatibility between type of weapons and type of injuries (). When the police call for doctors if a fall (fall from height) presents an accidental or criminal character, the forensic doctors, as we have seen, consider that they are not authorized to make an opinion; writing, they explain that no dcs mode cannot be dismissed (p.138).

The fear of being discredited by their hierarchy or in front of a court of law forces forensic doctors to make strategic decisions regarding rhetorical choices and the selective use of certain terms used to qualify diagnoses surrounding the causes and manner of a death (around the question of the qualification and equivocity of the terminology serious injuries between a representation of the actual seriousness of injury and its taxonomy in the Indian Penal Code, p. 71-75). It is a question of saying enough, to ensure the authoritative value of medical words in legal decisions, but of not saying too much, to avoid a diagnosis being interpreted as a judgment (a subjective and arbitrary position taken) and could bring suspicions about the professional integrity of the specialist. The choice of words and expressions in autopsy reports, as a mode of semantic and pragmatic production, is part of the balance of power between the different actors and parties involved in the resolution of judicial investigations. The presentation of an autopsy report to the court, as well as the rectification or confirmation of the work carried out by a peer during a second opinion, are all situations where the word and writing of forensic doctors can be doubted (by colleagues). , by magistrates, in particular). The weight of words, whose use is defined by singular contexts of denunciation, is largely correlated to the weight of hierarchical and (inter)institutional pressure in which the practice of legal medicine evolves.

Composing legal medicine through the prism of contemporary Indian society

Spatially marginalized places, Indian morgues are also designed with regard to internal stigmatization, according to the division of activities that are carried out within the framework of the procedures. Maintenance and housekeeping workers may sometimes dissect corpses, and all poor caste assistants are relegated to work that requires contact with dead bodies. Forensic doctors delegate this activity, preferring to supervise the autopsies and note the first elements which will constitute the reports, while avoiding touching the corpses. These observations support an existing paradigm towards activities linked to death in India, and of legal medicine as an area of ​​extension of the Indian caste system and discrimination linked to the risks of ritual pollution in Hinduism (Dumont, 1966). The patterns of the organization of Indian society are reproduced in morgues, thus reinforcing the structures of social domination between individuals. Another example than that of corruption supposes or proves forensic doctors, members of hospital bureaucratic services and police officers. Made up of illegal practices that blight the country and its administrations, suspected corruption sometimes requires questioning the expertise of a doctor (is the falsification voluntary or is it a sign of negligence??). How to report an act of corruption and protect yourself from possible repercussions at the same time? Fabien Provost shows that corruption in morgue services is akin to a sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of forensic doctors and their reputation as experts in their field (with the constant fear of being wrongly suspected).

Several doctors interviewed agreed to testify (to give their opinion rather) about the phenomena of corruption in legal investigations (corruption of fellow forensic doctors, but also of representatives of the justice system). However, the author recognizes the risk run by his interlocutors (in the work, places and people are anonymous) disclosing such information, and therefore mainly deals with the presumption of illegal acts in morgues. However, the author sheds real nuanced light on corrupt practices, led by the notion of a ethics of falsification in forensic medicine (p. 177). Medico-legal stories are built around biosocial knowledge; acquired medical and sociological knowledge mobilized which are based both on formal and informal representations shared at the professional group level and on various forms of personal experiences. They articulate the biological and the social, and even if this undeniably contributes to the perpetuation of stereotypes and the confirmation of relations of domination, this knowledge plays a decisive role in the daily elucidation of medico-legal cases. (p. 58). The conclusions of the bodies' expertise are also influenced by the subjective appreciation of the moral judgment of those who write the reports on the cases. From the discovery of a fetus during the examination of the corpse of a young unmarried Indian woman who committed suicide, the anthropologist designates the capacity of a forensic doctor hold your pen in autopsy reports, to prevent religious and social stigmatization that could corner the family. The decision to withhold certain information questions restitution as an ethical modality: between the weight given to legal truth and that of social conventions in India, linked to gender discrimination, caste hierarchies, social and economic inequalities, and the pressure of religious tradition.

An autopsy of the living through the study of the dead (and those who take care of them)

As a social production, the writing of legal medicine opens a door to the study of observance of the rule and the study of particular processes of resistance towards an institutional authority, and the part played by the influence of a professional and yet always malleable language on medical trajectories and judicial proceedings in criminal cases. A careful dissection of the role and activities of legal medicine (its agents, the tensions it presupposes, in the prudence of decision-making it imposes) questions the responsibility of scientific expertise to the extent of the power of the interpretation of facts (the stories cases, evidence analyzed, examination results, etc.). The notion of truth is subject to subjective morality and a modular reality, which then imposes a mode of rhetorical adjustment to account for a conjunctural social situation, which often correspond to structural social inequalities. An ethnography in hospital basements, Words from the morgue. Forensic medicine in North India shows the models and sensitivities that construct contemporary urban Indian society, and the specific relationship (be it religious, legal, or even political) that this society maintains with the phenomenon of death and with the social ills that affect it.