Traversing Boundaries: Anthropology, Political Asylum and the Provision of Expert Witness

Special Issue: Cultural Expert Witnessing

ISBN: 978-1-78743-764-7, eISBN: 978-1-78743-763-0

ISSN: 1059-4337

Publication date: 29 January 2018


This chapter explores the multiple boundaries traversed and accompanying acts of translation entailed in the provision of expertise by anthropologists. The chapter begins with an overview of the asylum process, the criteria constituting persecution, and a description of the bureaucracy and procedures by which asylum is determined. The role of expert witness is then introduced with a focus on the rules of federal evidence that paved the way for greater anthropological involvement in the provision of expertise. The next section reviews some of the extant ethnographic literature to date on the asylum process, highlighting the role of dissonance as a recurrent theme in two different respects: the dissonance that occurs between the asylum applicant and the legal setting, and the dissonance that is created between the asylee and his or her body in the aftermath of trauma. The crafting of the affidavit is then analyzed to illustrate the boundary crossings and acts of translation involved in the appraisal and understanding of asylum, including the traversal of difference in scale, temporality, and the construction of social reality, particularly those espoused by anthropology and law. I suggest that contributing to the protection of human rights through the provision of expert witness is a necessary and mutually beneficial collaboration whereby anthropological evidence, insight, and knowledge provide positive content to legal rights. I conclude that anthropologists are uniquely well qualified in the interlocution of persecution, likening the provision of expertise to fieldwork, as a series of border crossings and acts of translation.




The author gratefully acknowledges feedback from the 2013 American Anthropological Association conference panel during which the seeds of this work were first planted and later reformulated at the 2014 Society for Applied Anthropology conference. Ideas were further refined during expert witness roundtables held during the third (2014) and fourth (2016) Himalayan Studies Conferences at Yale University and the University of Texas, respectively; I would especially like to thank the input of Mary Cameron, Jim Fisher, Heather Hindman, and Carole McGranahan at these venues. A podcast made from the 2014 conference at Yale University can be found at I’m thankful to Justin Knodle and Sami Munikar Wagle for research assistance, Kathe Lehman-Meyer for academic technology support, Margaret Costatino’s insights from the Center for Refugee Services (San Antonio), and to Matt Kapitanyam for accompanying me through the legal proceedings. This work also benefitted from the feedback of Mike Sullivan and input of Henry Flores who first alerted me to the importance of the Daubert ruling. A debt of gratitude is also owed to John Brau for all manner of assistance. Finally and most importantly, I am grateful to Korona and other asylum seekers whose courage continues to inspire. Thank you for entrusting me with your story; I hope I did it justice in the telling. Any oversights or shortcomings in the present work are my own.


Gallagher, K.M. (2018), "Traversing Boundaries: Anthropology, Political Asylum and the Provision of Expert Witness", Sarat, A. and Rodriguez, L. (Ed.) Special Issue: Cultural Expert Witnessing (Studies in Law, Politics, and Society, Vol. 74), Emerald Publishing Limited, pp. 115-132.

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