Bodies from below : decomposition, death certificates, and the politics of 'natural' death

Nelson, Lee Claiborne
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Malazita, James
Campbell, Nancy D. (Nancy Dianne), 1963-
Schaffer, Eric D. (Guy)
Alaimo, Stacy
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Science and technology studies
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This dissertation focuses on human decomposition research within the forensic sciences, in particular forensic entomology, and how the death certificate Manner of Death category ‘Natural Death’ effects forensic research and functions to naturalize environmental injustices. After attending to the historiographic absence of bodily decomposition and various historical practices that absented the decomposing body or decomposing agents of the body, I turn to the conceptual inventions and practices of forensic entomology that emphasize and engage the decomposing body. Such historical absenting of the decomposing body contributed to the construction of the siloed and exclusionary conceptualization of the political and philosophical ‘human body.’ Because forensic entomology and human decomposition research in general only emerged within the last 50 years, the epistemic engagements with human decomposition represent a unique event of articulation whereby various nonhuman and environmental aspects of the body are avowed that had hitherto been historically disavowed. Through analyzing the categories, logics, and relationships between different sections of the modern death certificates, I find that certain types of injuries – particularly those related to environmental toxins – are incapable of being recognized as injurious.
My research involved textual analyses of forensics and governmental health literature and documents, participant observation field work and interviews with forensic entomologists, training in decomposition research and entomology, and historiographic research of death and bodily practices. I drew from STS and adjacent literature on laboratory and field sciences, epistemic practices involving nonhuman life, and Feminist New Materialist scholarship concerned specifically with human-nonhuman corporeality and toxicity.
August 2020
School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences
Dept. of Science and Technology Studies
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY
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