17th International Pragmatics Conference
Winterthur, June 2021
The making of an (in)credible witness and suspect
Historical and contemporary perspectives
on the discursive-pragmatic characteristics of depositions
Mieke Vandenbroucke (Universiteit Antwerpen)
Rik Vosters (Vrije Universiteit Brussel)
Both historical and contemporary legal procedures rely on statements by witnesses and suspects given both in-court and in previous police investigations as evidence in case decision-making. Such testimonies and depositions are typically shaped by complex co-construction by the interlocutors, while written accounts used in court are the outcome of transformative entextualisation processes (Andrus 2006; Grund 2007; Park & Bucholtz 2009). In this panel, we investigate such contemporary and historical accounts in trial proceedings, witness depositions and interrogation reports, using the present to explain the past (cf. Labov 1975), while simultaneously exploring what historical accounts can contribute to our understanding of present-day meaning making processes in testimonies.
Contemporary studies have documented how oral witness and suspect accounts come into existence through spoken question-answer sequences between interlocutors, and are shaped by a variety of questioning and answering techniques in direct and cross-examination, where meaning and evidence are negotiated through interaction (Komter 2006; Seung-Lee 2013). These encounters are power-differentiated and often highly conflictual interactions, fraught with skilful manipulation of pragma-linguistic resources (e.g. visual evidentials, marked pronominal constructions) to elicit relevant evidence and influence the court’s perception of the speaker’s identity and reliability of their testimony (Matoesian 2001).
Moreover, contemporary research has documented how the drafting process of the written account by the interrogator introduces changes to what the witness orally stated, for instance removing turn-taking through first-person accounts (Komter 2006), or filtering out hesitations and unintelligible utterances (Gallez & Maryns 2014; Rock 2001).
Historically, there is clear evidence that courtroom scribes similarly represented speech events by defendants in an unreliable fashion, making such evidence unsuited for correlational sociolinguistic analyses (Grund 2007), but opening up the possibility for historical pragmatic analyses of how entexualisation processes varied by context and evolved over time. Such discursive steering and transformative processes in turn heavily influence both how information is uncovered as evidence (Archer 2002), and how witnesses’ and suspects’ identities and credibility is construed to the court (Vartiainen 2017): elements such as the use of direct speech, for instance, are presented as markers of credibility and authenticity, even though witness testimonies are notoriously unreliable in representing the spoken word (Giordano 2012; Kytö & Walker 2003).
In this panel, we welcome papers which engage with testimonies in witness depositions, interrogation reports, or other similar courtroom or legal data, either from a contemporary or a historical perspective. We particularly welcome work focusing on the various pragmatic and textual features which shape the credibility of courtroom actors such as witnesses, suspects or experts, in either the oral account or written representation. We aim to achieve a mix of invited and submitted papers by senior and novice researchers working with historical and present-day data, and explicitly invite all participants to reflect on how we can use contemporary pragmatic research to further our understanding of historical pragmatic analyses of witness accounts by uncovering parallel linguistic and pragmatic behaviour and practices.
Call for Papers
All abstracts (300-500 words) will have to be submitted individually through the IPrA website:
Deadline: 25 October 2020
Please prepare your abstract according to the IPrA call for papers & submission guidelines (https://pragmatics.international/page/CfP), and make sure to select “The making of an (in)credible witness and suspect” as the panel for your submission.
Note that IPrA is making contingency plans for remote participation options, in the (very likely) case that not all participants will be able to be physically present at the conference due to the COVID-19 pandemic.