Karen Richmond

Image (c) The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

Object: DNA Swab Kit
Location: University of Strathclyde Forensic Science Department

The DNA swab collection kit consists of a sealable transparent evidence bag and a sterile ‘swab stick’. The collection stick is a sterile paper wand, with a serrated edge, designed to be inserted into the mouth and rubbed against the inner cheek. Alternatively it may be used to swab a range of body fluids, from blood and semen to saliva. These actions deposit DNA-bearing skin cells or fluids onto the collection stick, which is then screwed into the sterile plastic container, and deposited in the ‘tamper evident’ transparent bag. The collection kit is intended as an efficient tool to be used by institutional actors, both within – and allied to – the criminal justice system, in order that they may succesfully capture the bio-identities of suspect individuals.

Material objects – such as the DNA swab collection kit – occupy a particularly significant place within my research, which attempts to show whether, and to what extent, forensic expertise (as enacted through the analysis and interpretation of DNA profiles) is shaped by the interposition of a number of policy, cultural, and socio-economic factors. I am interested in exploring, and revealing, the series of laboratory translations through which that evidential material is converted into textual and visual inscriptions. Each phase of this ‘evidential trajectory’ (from the collection and stabilisation of trace samples to their transmutation into graphical representations and statistical probabilities) revolves around the use of material objects or the production of graphical representations.

In the case of the DNA collection kit, the focus on sterility, a recordable chain of evidence, and evidence of unauthorised contact, accords with a scientific-realist perspective, and implies that any loss of evidential value can only derive from a derogation from administrative protocols. Crucially, this perspective fails to account for the socially constructed nature of DNA-profiling (and associated forensic techniques).

With its focus on sterility and regulatory objectivity, the swab stick may be viewed as a procedural prompt: the means through which institutional actors enact, and reaffirm, their belief in ‘the forensic imaginary’. The ‘forensic imaginary’, as outlined by Williams,[1] rests upon a commitment to two principles. The first of these is the assertion that all objects are unique, and that it is possible to capture the unique identifiability of any object (whether or not tied to an ineradicable bodily substrate). The second principle is encapsulated in the proposition – widely attributed to the French scientist Edmond Locard – that ‘exchange always happens’.

Recourse to the ‘forensic imaginary’ may serve a particular purpose within the criminal justice system. As Williams states,

‘…the imaginary has been carried in ‘images, stories and legends’ (Taylor 2014: 23)…and it has contributed hugely to the willingness of governments to fund forensic science developments and ambitions.’[2]

Those whose task it is to craft criminal justice policy, and to alleviate public concerns, often seek recourse to ‘the demonstrably effective use of current and emergent technologies’: techniques which are deemed capable of capturing, knowing, and recording, individuality, and of anchoring members of suspect populations to an inscription derived from a stable and ineradicable biological substrate. However, the principles upon which the ‘forensic imaginary’ is based are demonstrably ambiguous, and as open to criticism and revision as the DNA collection kit itself.

Thus, from a research perspective, the DNA collection kit may represent a somewhat ambiguous object. While it serves to capture the identity of suspect populations it fails to represent the entire evidential trajectory, and the sequence of translations which convert raw biological material into statistical probabilities. It is static, not dynamic: a point of departure on an interdisciplinary process, rather than a discrete focus for reflection. Thus, while the collection kit may serve a useful purpose within the context of my research, more is required. Therefore, I intend to experiment with socio-legal modeling in order to disclose the missing elements.

[1] Williams, R. DNA Databases and the Forensic Imaginary, in Hindmarsh, R. & Prainsack, B. (Eds.) Genetic Suspects: Global Governance of Forensic DNA Profiling and Databasing (Oxford: OUP, 2010)

[2] Williams, Op. cit. at p.135