The Wonder of Forensic Science and the Lively Matter of Decomposition by Dr Trang X. Ta
Date : 21 Feb 2018
Time : 16:00 - 17:30
Venue : Asia Research Institute, Meeting Room
AS8 Level 7, 10 Kent Ridge Crescent, Singapore 119260
National University of Singapore @ KRC


Dr Connor Graham, Asia Research Institute, and Tembusu College, National University of Singapore


Decomposition is complex. Forensic scientists engaged in taphonomic research study how the process of decomposition is highly variable due to the permutation of circumstances and ecosystems in existence. Indoors or outdoors, terrestrial or aquatic, mass burial or single burial, clothed or naked, the distinctive flora and fauna in the area, the seasonal temperature, and involvement of multiple species from microbes to scavengers all affect decomposition. As the decomposition process advances, the decaying body moves closer toward indistinguishable organic matter. For the police and forensic scientists trying to recreate an individual profile, the traces of identifying features like sex, age, and ancestry begin to erode beyond recognition depending on time and circumstances of discovery. This is complicated further in the difficult work of locating clandestine burials of human bodies. In these cases, the odor profile of decomposition and the use of cadaver dogs is the major means to help locate bodies hidden from view. This essay is an exploration of research into decomposition through the insights of forensic scientists who work intimately with death and decay to consider how the practicalities of research traverse ethical limitations, social unknowns, and local ecologies. The challenges of recreating research conditions illuminates how the scientific endeavour is embedded in cultural considerations around the management of death and reconciling hidden violence and tragedy with social order.


Trang X. Ta is a Lecturer in Medical Anthropology in the School of Archaeology and Anthropology and the Convenor of the Masters Program in Culture, Health, and Medicine, an interdisciplinary graduate degree between the College of Arts and Social Sciences and the College of Health and Medicine at the Australian National University in Canberra. This paper is from her new project in the field of science and technology studies examining how forensic scientists negotiate an intimacy with death through the study of human decomposition. Ta’s previous research are in medical anthropology, cultural studies, and China studies and she is currently working on a book manuscript based on long-term fieldwork in Beijing and Guangzhou on the moral economies of public charity in late-socialist China. Her other project examines how the elderly and working poor engage in rehabilitating and revalorizing discarded materials in Hong Kong. Additional research and teaching interests include anthropology of food and nutrition and aging studies.


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Contact Person(s)
Minghua TAY