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Ethnography at the Intersection Between Medicine and Law: Lessons from the Field

Valentina Ramia
Mon May 6th 2024, 12:30 - 1:20pm
Building 50, 51A


In 1951, the United Nations established that a refugee is a person with a “well-founded fear” of past and future persecution. Since then, recognizing fear, evaluating its plausibility, and verifying its rationality have been at the core of asylum law in the United States. In the effort to turn an emotion into legal matter, experts strive to determine whose fear is pathological and whose fear is reasonable in the eyes of the law. This talk argues that when fear is assessed in the accounts of women fleeing gender violence, psychology and the law produce subjectivities that are foreclosed from legal and medical narrative standards. What happens when court officials claim someone’s testimony fails to “grasp reality”? What narratives of persecution resist the demands of legal and medical symbolization? What statements convey a “genuine” fear of persecution? In this presentation, I will reflect on these questions from an ethnographic point of view, drawing from my participant observation as a Spanish-English interpreter between Latin American asylum seekers and immigration lawyers in New York. I suggest that it is by taking fear as an ethnographic object that we can observe the negotiation between psychological and legal claims to name and know an emotion.