Citizen Forensics

Materializing the Dead from Grave to Gene

Dr Layla Renshaw
Kingston University


Citizen forensics is an emerging phenomenon whereby laypeople take on the scientific investigation of crimes, assuming investigative roles normally associated with state actors such as the police, or technical specialists. The primary manifestation of citizen forensics is the search for the missing, or the dead, by their relatives and communities. This may be in the context of contemporary violence, in the case of the thousands of individuals abducted and murdered in Mexico, or resulting from historic events, such as the ongoing exhumation of hundreds of mass graves from the Spanish Civil War.

Citizen forensics is clearly an expression of affective connection and humanitarian care for the dead, but also a powerful form of political action. By adopting specialist roles that are normally the preserve of the state, citizen forensics can heighten public awareness of the liminal status of the dead and disappeared, reproach state inaction and the failure of official investigations, or draw attention to state complicity in these crimes.

This project will bring together a highly interdisciplinary group of researchers, including activists and scientific practitioners, engaged with very different empirical cases, methodologies, and theoretical perspectives to map this emerging area of enquiry. The aim is to rigorously theorize the concept of citizen forensics, taking a critical perspective on its outcomes, its implications as a model for political action, and its intersection with the state. The risks and possibilities for academics engaging with this work will be assessed. A particular focus will be the materiality of these practices, paying close attention to the different physical properties of graves, bodies, DNA samples, and the genetic codes abstracted from them. Rapidly evolving techniques like the ‘bio-banking’ of DNA will be examined. This material focus will identify the political, memorial, affective, aesthetic, spatial and temporal affordances of these multiple materializations of the dead.

The Research Idea

The missing and dead exist on a spectrum of different material registers or modalities. These might be a grave, a set of human remains, a possession found on their body, a DNA sample held in a lab, or the genetic code abstracted from that sample. With the advent of mass participation in bio-banking, the missing and dead may also be materialized by a DNA sample donated by a living relative, stored in perpetuity, with the hope that one day, the dead will be recovered and genetically matched to their sample.

These materializations have particular affordances that strongly shape the memorial and political actions that can be mobilized around the dead. They offer different opportunities for popular participation in the recovery of the dead, and allow differing demands for state action (or critiques of state inaction) to be articulated. The different properties, for example of graves, as opposed to genes, open up radically different temporal and spatial frameworks in which relatives and campaigners can operate. Materializations shape the type of affect and emotion they elicit, and strongly determine the aesthetic representations and public visibility of the dead.

By drawing together a diverse group of researchers who combine sustained engagements with specific communities and locales, and sophisticated theoretical responses to their own particular empirical contexts, the concept of citizen forensics can be developed comparatively. Its analytical usefulness and limitations can be mapped and the risks and possibilities for both academics and communities undertaking this work can be identified, to inform future practice.


The increasing use of forensic techniques to investigate conflict and human rights abuses has been noted by scholars in a range of fields, in the wider ‘forensic turn’ (Dziuban, 2017) as has the ascendancy of the dead body in memory politics (Laqueur, 2002; Verdery, 1999). The ontology of the corpse and the grave has been explored by Domanska (2005). However, these works do not explicitly focus on citizen forensics.

Multiple real-world case-studies of post-conflict investigations and detailed ethnographies have been produced (Ferrandiz, 2006; Sant-Cassia, 2007; Sanford, 2003) which are historically and politically engaged, but few attempt any sustained cross-cultural or comparative analysis, nor a deeper theorization of this field of enquiry.

A significant theoretical framework has been the concept of necropolitics (Mbembe, 2003; Ferrandiz and Robben, 2015), referencing a long-standing application of biopolitical theory to the themes of political violence and repression (Agamben, 1995). Necropolitics is a useful approach to mass violence, but does not reflect the potential for the living to mobilize the dead in political resistance and protest.

Conversely, other work uncritically accepts ‘forensic humanitarianism’, emphasizing its redemptive capacity to serve the dead, and promote psychological closure (Rosenblatt, 2015). This risks the imposition of universalizing human rights discourses, masking the specificity of each case (Moon, 2012). A significant limitation of much of this work is the way the traces of the dead are homogenized, so material differences and affordances are overlooked. Key foundational work for this project is contributed by the participants, such as Schwartz-Marin and Cruz-Santiago (2016).

The Focus

This research conceptualizes citizen forensics as the mobilization of the living around the dead, and the mobilization of the dead themselves in their various material forms, in pursuit of both highly personal and highly political forms of action. The aim of citizen forensics may be deeply private: to recover and mourn a loved-one; to bring to light the circumstances of their death; and pursue justice on their behalf. But it may also constitute a public and political act: to protest against the wider conditions of violence; to expose pervasive conditions of injustice and impunity; to critique state inaction and counteract collective amnesia; or to join in solidarity with other victims. The precise ways these scientific practices can shape personal and political responses to death and disappearance is the real-world problem addressed by this research.

A number of key examples of citizen forensics will form the empirical focus of this project. By assembling leading researchers in this area of enquiry who have sustained engagements with relatives and communities of the dead, the project will gain valuable insights into diverse complex real-world cases. These include: community-led searches for clandestine burials and genetic sampling to recover the victims of criminal and political violence in Mexico and Colombia (Cruz-Santiago and Schwartz-Marin); the long history of forensic science in political resistance in Argentina (Crossland); grassroots movements to exhume mass graves from the Spanish Civil War (Renshaw); and different communities’ rejection and appropriation of forensic practices in the aftermath of Srebrenica and the Vietnam War (Wagner).

Theoretical Novelty

The primary innovation of this project is to develop and refine the term citizen forensics as a conceptual tool, and to map this as an emerging area of academic engagement. Two parallel strands will be pursued. Firstly, to engage critically with the political limitations and risks of citizen forensics whilst remaining ethically aligned with the relatives and communities of the dead, problematizing these practices whilst being sensitive to the immediacy of their needs and concerns (Schwartz-Marin, Cruz-Santiago, Jones explore forms of scholaractivism, and mediation between scientists, communities and the state.)

Secondly, the material focus of this project, and the framing of citizen forensics as a spectrum of different materializations of the dead, is an important conceptual innovation. The degree to which traces of the dead, and memorial and political action are mutually constitutive is a central theoretical contention in the project. All the participants in this project have a sophisticated understanding of the material traces of the dead, taking theoretical perspectives from bioethics (Jones), semiotics (Crossland), and aesthetics (Dzuiban).

In particular, a material focus will enable the theoretical interrogation of DNA sampling and bio-banking as rapidly spreading practices (Schwartz-Marin, Cruz-Santiago, Renshaw, Wagner). The perceived technical complexity of the science, the apparent objectivity of DNA as a ‘black-box’ technology, and the way genetic samples seem to lack the visceral immediacy of bodies, all mean that this area has been radically under-theorized. The resistance of DNA to existing theoretical approaches makes it imperative to focus on this emerging practice in citizen forensics.


The research group for this project is highly interdisciplinary, encompassing anthropology (Crossland, Wagner), social geography and law (Cruz-Santiago), sociology (Schwartz-Marin), bioethics (Jones), forensic archaeology (Renshaw), and heritage studies (Dziuban). The methodology for this project will be to foster interdisciplinary understanding and exchange to produce novel insights. Contextual materials will be circulated prior to the meeting, including a short representative piece of writing (published or unpublished) by each participant, and a short text or excerpt selected by each participant that particularly informs their work on this theme. This is to foster awareness of the range of disciplinary perspectives and reference points.

The initial session will be a short presentation by each participant, with a detailed focus on the empirical context of their research, emphasizing field-notes, description, materiality, and images. This is to enable comparative discussion and foster an engagement with the material affordances in each case. For the remainder of the research period, the aims of the project will be pursued through alternating sessions of group discussion, intensive periods of individual or paired writing to produce brief proposals, position statements, or abstracts, and sharing this writing for comment and discussion. As detailed in the work plan, the alternating sessions of discussion and writing will initially be structured around the twin goals of defining and critiquing citizen forensics, and theorizing the materializations of the dead. For the second two days, the work will be structured by collaborating on a publication and then agreeing the longer-term outcomes of the project.


In addition to the written outputs of journal articles and short essays outlined above, this project aims for a number of far-reaching outcomes. The most significant outcome is to clearly establish citizen forensics as an interdisciplinary area of enquiry, strengthening it and refining it as a conceptual category to analyse certain forms of memorial and political activity, across different empirical contexts.

The final day of the project concerns the development of next steps for the research group, with a particular focus on how academics can engage with citizen forensics in the real world. Ways to foster ongoing exchanges, and the development of practice amongst those in frontline roles as activists or mediators for the families and communities of the dead, will be identified. Strategies to incorporate more theoretically informed approaches, and more critical perspectives on the ethical and political risks of citizen forensics, in frontline practices will be evaluated, to bridge current gaps between theorists and practitioners. The potential to foster peer-led exchanges of experience between relatives or communities engaged in citizen forensics, and the potential value and impact of these exchanges, will be assessed. The relative benefits of different modes of exchange such as face-toface meetings, or virtual networks, will be compared and different sources of funding, resources and expertise identified to support the creation of both peer-led and academic networks for those working in citizen forensics. The following question relates to your research project budget. If you would prefer to provide a more detailed budget breakdown please attach the document in the next section.


Agamben, G. (1998) Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford: Stanford University Press

Domanska, E. (2005) Toward the Archaeontology of the Dead Body. Rethinking History, 9(4), 389-413

Ferrándiz, F. (2006) The Return of Civil War Ghosts: The Ethnography of Exhumations in Contemporary Spain. Anthropology Today 22 (3): 7-12

Ferrándiz, F. & Robben, A. (eds.) (2015) Necropolitics: Mass Graves and the Exhumations in the Age of Human Rights. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press

Laqueur, T. W. 2002. ‘The Dead Body and Human Rights’, in I. Hodder and S. Sweeney (eds.) The Body. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 75–93

Mbembe, A. (2003) Necropolitics, Public Culture 15(1): 11-40

Moon, C. (2012) Interpreters of the Dead: Forensic Knowledge, Human Remains and the Politics of the Past. Social & Legal Studies 22(2) 149–169

Rosenblatt, A. (2015) Digging for the Disappeared: Forensic Science after Atrocity. Stanford University Press

Sant Cassia, P. (2007) Bodies of Evidence: Burial, Memory and the Recovery of Missing Persons in Cyprus . New York: Berghahn Books

Sanford, V. (2003) Buried Secrets: Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala. New York: Palgrave Macmillan

Schwartz-Marin E. & Cruz-Santiago A. (2016) Forensic Civism: Articulating Science, DNA and Kinship in Contemporary Mexico and Colombia. Human Remains and Violence: an Interdisciplinary Journal, 2(1), 58-74

Verdery, K. (1999) The Political Lives of Dead Bodies: Reburial and Postsocialist Change. New York: Columbia University Press

  • Dr. Zoe Crossland, Anthropology, Columbia University
  • Dr. Arely Cruz-Santiago, Social Geography / Law, Durham University
  • Dr. Zuzanna Dziuban, Cultural Studies / Heritage Studies, University of Amsterdam
  • Dr. June Jones, Bioethics, Birmingham University
  • Dr. Layla Renshaw, Forensic Archaeology, Kingston University
  • Dr. Ernesto Schwartz-Marin, Sociology, Exeter University
  • Dr. Sarah Wagner, Anthropology, George Washington University