Anachronistic Progress? User Notions of Lie Detection in the Juridical Field

  • Bettina Paul Universität Hamburg Allende Platz 1 20146 Hamburg
  • Larissa Fischer RWTH Aachen University Eilfschornsteinstr. 7 52062 Aachen
  • Torsten H. Voigt RWTH Aachen University Eilfschornsteinstr. 7 52062 Aachen
Keywords: technological change, progress, anachronism, technological persistence, lie detection, polygraph


In recent years, progress in the field of lie detection has been linked to technological advances from classic polygraphs to neuroscientific brain imaging. In our empirical investigation, however, we found different notions of progress that do not comply with the popular understanding of progress as technological innovation. We follow the users of lie detection procedures in Germany in order to discern how they embrace seemingly old technologies and frame them in terms of novelty and improvement. We identify two notions of progress: one view of the polygraph in the juridical field as an instrument for procedural justice, and another view in which the device functions as a symbol of openness to improvements in the judicial system. These insights complement contemporary scholarship on lie detection by shining a critical light on the rhetoric of progress in relation to the promises of brain-based lie detection procedures. When analyzing the way polygraph tests are seen as progress, it becomes clear that the promises and hopes that are linked to this technology are of more relevance for its appraisal than its placement in time.

Author Biographies

Bettina Paul, Universität Hamburg Allende Platz 1 20146 Hamburg

Bettina Paul is a senior researcher at the Universität Hamburg, Germany, where she teaches in the international criminology master’s program. In her postdoctoral work she ethnographically investigates how socially effective concepts of technicity develop. She currently explores how the consistency, omnipresence, and uniformity of the lie detector image in Germany can be explained.

Larissa Fischer, RWTH Aachen University Eilfschornsteinstr. 7 52062 Aachen

Larissa Fischer is a research fellow at the Institute of Sociology at RWTH Aachen University, Germany. Her research and teaching interests include the sociology of knowledge, science and technology studies, and visual culture(s). Since 2017, she has been working on her Ph.D. on the cultural implications of lie detection procedures in Germany. She is also interested in developments in the fields of neuroscience.

Torsten H. Voigt, RWTH Aachen University Eilfschornsteinstr. 7 52062 Aachen

Torsten H. Voigt is a professor of sociology and the chair of the technology and diversity program at RWTH Aachen University, Germany. His research interests lie at the interface of science and technology studies, medical sociology, the sociology of social problems and control, race, and ethnicity, and social theory. He is particularly interested in how biotechnological innovations shape and are influenced by societal norms and values.


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16 Aug 2020
Research Articles