Negotiating proximity: expert testimony and collective memory in the trials of environmental activists in France and the United Kingdom

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This article analyzes the role of expert witness testimony in the trials of social movement actors, discussing the trial of the "Kingsnorth Six" in Britain and the trials of activists currently mobilising against airport construction at Notre Dame des Landes in western France. Though the study of expert testimony has so far overwhelmingly concentrated on fact-finding and admissibility, the cases here reveal the importance of expert testimony not simply in terms of legal argument, but in "moral" or political terms, as it reflects and constitutes movement cognitive praxis. In the so-called climate change defence presented by the Kingsnorth Six, I argue that expert testimony attained a "negotiation of proximity," connecting different types of contributory expertise to link the scales and registers of climate science with those of everyday understanding and meaning. Expert testimony in the trials of activists in France, however, whilst ostensibly able to develop similar bridging narratives, has instead been used to construct resistance to the airport siting as already proximate, material, and embedded. To explain this, I argue that attention to the symbolic, as well as instrumental, functions of expert testimony reveals the crucial role that collective memory plays in the construction of both knowledge and grievance in these cases. Collective memory is both a constraint on and catalyst for mobilisation, defining the boundaries of the sayable. Testimony in trials both reflects and reproduces these elements and is a vital explanatory tool for understanding the narrativisation and communication of movement identities and objectives.

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Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)208-235
Number of pages28
JournalLaw and Policy
Issue number3
Early online date31 May 2013
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2013


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