Seminar: On being a “passive observer” in criminal proceedings with trafficked women

Society and economy

During this seminar, Sharon FitzGerald will present and discuss her paper "On Being a “Passive Observer”: Exploring the Corporeal and Affective Dimensions of Power in Observational Research on Trafficked Women in German Criminal Proceedings".

28 Apr 2023
13:15 - 15:00
Room F417, Skanstorget 18, Gothenburg and online.

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About the seminar: 

Abstract: In this paper, I analyse the methodological issues that arise when I accept a judge’s invitation to observe him use a unique in camera method to hear women testify in criminal proceedings against their traffickers. I focus on the epistemological and ontological issues that arise when then judge sheds his research participant role, and assumes the mantel of judicial gatekeeper. Specifically, he stipulated that the conditions of my access what that I had ‘to be a passive observer of proceedings at all times’. This meant that I had to use the problematic ethnographic methos of complete observation to sample data.

Drawing on Pierre Bourdieu’s work on the embodied dimensions of power and feminist engagements with affective theory, I offer a critical feminist analysis of my field experiences. To do this, I offer and analysis rooted in a methodology that takes bodies, emotions and affects as conceptual tools. I use these tools to probe and interrogate how power transmits, circulates and influences the research process and relationships in the institutional arena of the criminal law. Then, I apply this framework to my thematic discussion of my field experience along three conceptual lines. First, I examine how corporeal and affective power relations inform how the judge and I developed rapport and negotiate the politics of access to the field. Secondly, I examine how these dual power relationships determine how I ‘enter’ and ‘read’ the field. Finally, I interrogate my reaction to how the judge secures the witnesses’ consent for me to observe their depositions. I argue that my ‘gaze’ plays a constitutive role in the patterns of inequality and power relations that govern who can make ‘knowledge’ claims in that context.

I conclude by demonstrating how attention to the corporeal and affective dimensions of power offer us some methodological strategies for modifying research methods around the consent process that can be responsive to trafficked women’s -and others - circumstances in research settings in the spaces of the criminal law.

Researcher bio: Dr FitzGerald is a Senior Research and critical feminist scholar. Her teaching and research interests lie at the intersection of sociology, criminology, feminisms and criminal law. She is an established and internationally recognised expert in the areas of gender, sexuality, criminal and social justice, gender equality law and policy, human trafficking and violence against women. Currently, she is a co-investigator with Professor May-Len Skilbrei (UiO) on Medical, legal and lay understandings of physical evidence in rape cases (Evidently Rape). Evidently Rape examines how physical evidence matters and can be a factor in how medical and criminal justice institutions approach the crime of rape She is the author of Sexual Politics in Contemporary Europe: Moving Targets, Sitting Ducks (with May-Len Skilbrei) and Gender, Equality and Social Justice Anti Trafficking, Sex Work and Migration Law and Policy in the EU (with Jane Freedman). Sharron is the founder and Executive Director of Executive Director for the International Research Network for Law, Gender and Sexuality (LEX). For membership detail, please see: