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Paper: Contesting credibility in Australian refugee decision-making
University of Technology Sydney, Australia
Whether we can trust those seeking asylum is increasingly a central question in both public discourse and institutional processes, with credibility assessments an important component of the latter. How bodies assessing refugee claims conceptualize credibility is therefore of crucial importance.
This paper shares findings from the first sociolinguistic study taking the construction and contestation of credibility in refugee procedures as its central point of examination. Using Social Actor Analysis (van Leeuwen, 1996) the study critically examined the language ideologies underlying published refugee appeal decisions and decision-making guidelines. It also considered how the discourse in these texts frames other forms of diversity, and explored how these constructions of language and diversity affect how credibility is understood and assessed in visa decision-making.
The discourse uncovered is found to problematically construct credibility as an individual attribute attaching to visa applicants. However, I argue this contradicts the sociolinguistic realities. While decision makers are expected to assess credibility by examining how applicants communicate, this assumes that their speech and writing is something they create independently, rather than being institutionally controlled and produced through the interaction of multiple participants.
The discourse thus creates serious challenges for applicants, who must communicate “credibly” to gain protection. This finding also has implications for law and procedural reform: the individuals most likely to wish to challenge the institutional conceptualization of credibility, applicants themselves, are also the least likely to be believed.
van Leeuwen,T.(1996).The representation of social actors. In C.R.Caldas-Coulthard & M.Coulthard (eds.),Texts and practices: Readings in critical discourse analysis,32–70.
4:30pm - 5:00pm
Narrative fragmentation in Florida v Zimmerman: AAVE and the dynamics of courtroom interaction
York University, Canada
The 2013 US trial of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin has received considerable attention from sociolinguists working on issues of language and race (Hodges 2015; Slobe 2016; Rickford & King 2016; Sullivan 2016; Bax 2018). Scholars have focused in particular on the cross-examination of the prosecution witness Rachel Jeantel and on her use of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), arguing that her testimony was not understood by jurors who were both unfamiliar with her dialect and socially biased against it (Rickford & King 2016).
This paper adds to and expands on this research by drawing on findings from research on courtroom questioning and the effectiveness of witness testimony in the adversarial system (Woodbury 1984; Stygall 1994; Harris 2001; Cotterill 2003; Heffer 2005; Eades 2012). Focusing in particular on the direct examination, it is shown how the witness’s testimony is impacted by other participants' interruptions and by the prosecutor's constraining questioning strategy, both of which are shown to be related in part to her use of AAVE. These factors converge to cause extreme fragmentation of her narrative, likely making her testimony appear less persuasive to jurors (Stygall 1994, Harris 2001).
The findings converge with other studies on legal-lay discourse in suggesting that linguistic and cultural differences between individuals do not merely constitute a communication barrier that causes miscommunication, but that they may have both pragmatic and metapragmatic consequences that further undermine the provision of justice and may be deliberately exploited by other courtroom actors (cf. Eades 2004).