Culture on trial: An ethnographic study of the de/constructing of culture in Finnish law courts

Thesis event information

Date and time of the thesis defence

Place of the thesis defence

Linnanmaa, lecture hall L10, Zoom link:

Topic of the dissertation

Culture on trial: An ethnographic study of the de/constructing of culture in Finnish law courts

Doctoral candidate

Master of Arts Taina Cooke

Faculty and unit

University of Oulu Graduate School, Faculty of Humanities, History, Culture and Communications research unit

Subject of study

Cultural Anthropology


Professor Marie-Claire Foblets, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle (Saale), Germany


Professor Hannu I. Heikkinen, University of Oulu

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Many have their say on cultures in Finnish criminal trials

Cultures and cultural identities are discussed and contested by judges, litigants, and lawyers, but also by eyewitnesses and interpreters in Finnish courts. According to a recent dissertation, the employment of trained cultural experts would at times be needed in Finnish trials that involve people from cultural minorities. At present, eyewitnesses, for instance, can occasionally end up serving as informal cultural experts.

Additionally, the study examined the assumed neutrality of the current non-religious witness affirmation. The findings lead into considering if allowing witnesses to swear by their god would, in some cases, be advisable.

The study investigated Finnish criminal trials through the use of ethnographic methods. Taina Cooke, MA, gathered the primary research data by participating in thirty-eight criminal trials. In addition to this, Cooke carried out five expert interviews and analysed the court decisions from 230 criminal cases.

The study argues that those who are involved in criminal trials actively mobilise the notion of culture, on one hand, yet reproduce an image of law and its subjects as acultural and without context, on the other. This process ties into imagining the “cultural other” but also the “cultural normal”, and it often leads into reproducing stereotypical notions of cultures and cultural identities. The practices in which the socio-cultural background of litigants and legal institutions are erased, in turn, draw on the law’s commitment to particular ideals regarding legal subjectivity, neutrality and equality.

In conclusion, the study underlines the vast cultural diversity of those participating in Finnish trials. According to the dissertation candidate, the actors in legal institutions should critically examine their assumptions on the Finnish trials' assumed users and pay close attention to whose views on justice are advanced in the trials, now and in the future.
Last updated: 1.3.2023