Exhumining violent histories

Nicole Iturriaga


While at the MPI, Nicole has also been working to complete her book manuscript, “Exhuming Violent Histories: Forensics, DNA, and Rewriting the Past,” currently under review at Columbia University Press. It explores how human rights activists use forensic interventions, such as exhumations and DNA testing, to challenge dominant histories of violence, thereby contesting the state’s claims over historical memory, notably those of the highly problematic Francoist period. Explicitly, the book illustrates that, by grounding their claims in science, human rights activists have presented themselves as credible and impartial, rather than as partisan and biased. In other words, they draw on science, international protocols, and tropes of modernity to depoliticize their account of state terror. “Exhuming Violent Histories” reveals that human rights activists, using what Nicole terms a “depoliticized scientific approach,” can meaningfully alter dominant narratives of violence, shape transitional justice efforts, and restitute the identities of missing persons. Nicole also shows that this transnational movement’s sovereignty and legitimacy has risen - in many cases - above those of the nation-state. The book’s data pull from a historical analysis of secondary literature of the global forensics-based human rights social movement, two months of interviews and observations in Argentina in 2015, 15 months of participant observation with the Spanish Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory (ARMH) in 2015-2017, and interviews with 230 activist and non-activist Spaniards. The book also incorporates new data, including a content analysis of local news coverage of an ARMH reburial event, to explore their mezzo-level impact on challenging the dominant narratives, as well as 55 interviews with experts from other human rights forensics laboratories currently working across the world. Nicole’s ongoing project seeks to unpack the multi-level impact (individual, local, state, and transnational) of scientific exhumations and identifications of missing persons on post-conflict Argentina and Spain. Specifically, this project will look at the role that forensic interventions (including exhumations and genetic testing) have played in the process of mourning, interrupted death rituals, and potential closure. This research will both develop and expand our understanding of how the scientific recovery, identification, and reburial of victims of enforced disappearance mediate long-term grief and suffering, as well as societal collective memory. 

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