(Lack of) Material Evidence

I do some family genealogy every now and then. Like many others, I have turned to the internet in the past years to build a family tree. This tree evolved thanks to some unrelated genealogists who have the opportunity and time to dig in archives and visit cemeteries to photograph graves in distant places. However, sometimes the suggested relatives’ names, dates, or places do not necessarily match with my notes, and I have a feeling that some people are trying to make connections that do not truthfully tell my family’s story. Then I need evidence like a birth, marriage, or death certificate or a picture of a grave to determine whether the person is really part of my extended family history or whether the mismatch of a different date or spelling could be due to an incorrect transcript or the proposed link is just a mistake.

This material evidence is important and useful in understanding the past. It helps to reconstruct personal life stories and family histories, and furthermore, it proves my own existence in a broader sense. At the same time, however, the various forms of material evidence ignore the existence of those who were not recorded, for whom there is no material acknowledgement and official recognition of their existence, and yet they have been alive in some family stories that have been passed on from one generation to the next. This has led me to think more about the role of materiality in proving our existence and providing recognition and rights in society.

As part of our research in SENSOMEMO, we explore “biographical objects” (Hoskins 1998) that help to tell more about a person’s life history, including the role of objects in making social bonds and kin relationships become real by being imbued with affect and associated with memories (see Huhn 2018, 413). A focus on materiality helps us to theorize upon the interconnection between material culture, life history, and identity in a broader scope and its affect across generations. But we are also interested in exploring the political, legal, civic and social dimensions of materiality that influence people’s past, present and future lives and relationships.

In the Western world, we rely on documented material evidence in the sense of ‘hard facts’ to prove our relationships in our family and, above all, to legitimize our existence as legal and natural persons with corresponding rights. While identity is usually seen as an individual process supported by collective memories and identifications, the only legal and accepted form of identity is provided within institutional frameworks. Documents such as passports or certificates of birth, marriage, death, graduation, and qualifications identify us, tell a story about us, and at the same time shape our recognition and our rights in society. They also shape social interactions, conditions, and power relations in society. It happens quite automatically for the majority of people living in Western societies, without them giving much thought to it. However, this material evidence can be destroyed or lost in natural disasters, wars, conflicts, and in movements, thus complicating matters for the individual and their families. Without necessary documents and papers, a person’s physical existence, civil rights, legal entitlements, and social needs will not be recognized and the accuracy of a person’s claims will be questioned.

Materiality as a legal proof of a person’s existence is linked to a wide range of current themes, e.g. citizenship, (human) rights, participation, and inclusion. It is thematized in the context of migration and mobility, reveals institutionalized discrimination and sexism, or points to problematic nationality laws or peculiar quirks of international law. In 2018, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi affirmed that “[e]very person on this planet has the right to nationality and the right to say I belong” (UNCHR 2018), but, at the same time, an estimated 12 million people around the world have been denied a nationality and fundamental human, political, civil, and economic rights. The lack of material evidence (i.e. official papers) of their existence drives people into statelessness and increases their risk of poverty, marginalisation, exploitation, and arbitrary decisions taken on their behalf. People who cannot prove their existence live in limbo without the same rights, opportunities, or future prospects. They often are not allowed to go to school, see a doctor, take up a job, open a bank account, buy a house, have a permanent residence, or even get married and register the birth of their children. They are also denied any political participation, representation, and security (see UNCHR 2018). This is not only a problem for people and population groups living in countries far from us but there are also approximately 600,000 stateless people in Europe. Some are citizens of dissolved states (e.g., the former Soviet Union or the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia), others are refugees, or belong to ‘undesired’ minority groups (ISI 2017). Even today children born in Europe can sometimes be exposed to statelessness due to discriminatory nationality laws of their parents’ country of origin, a conflict of nationality laws, or because their parents simply lack necessary papers documenting their identity.

Documents, papers and pictures are perceived as objective material evidence of reality and existence that help to construct a coherent identity in the present and give clarity and evidence to what otherwise might stay incomplete. Material evidence document people’s stories by providing evidence of the past, helping to reconstruct knowledge and filling in the gaps in personal life stories but materiality also has a real impact on people’s security, their future prospects, possibilities, and legal positions. We need to be aware that while material evidence promises to be more truthful and authentic than words and memories, they can (purposefully or involuntarily) transmit false information. Material evidence can both empower the individual and be (mis)used to support a prevailing narrative and perspective in power relations. This is also a topic we would like to deepen in our SENSOMEMO project.

Hoskins, Janet. 1998. Biographical Objects: How Things Tell the Stories of People’s Lives. New York: Routledge.
Huhn, Arianna (2018) Biographical Objects, Affective Kin Ties, Memories of Childhood. Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth, 11(3): 403-420.
ISI (Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion) 2017. Stateless persons in Europe. http://www.worldsstateless.org/continents/europe/stateless-persons-in-europe [accessed on 15 October 2021]
UNCHR 2018. ‘12 million’ stateless people globally, warns UNHCR chief in call to States for decisive action. 12 November 2018. https://news.un.org/en/story/2018/11/1025561 [accessed on 15 October 2021]

Picture caption:
The wall of passports was part of the permanent exhibition ‘Identity: yours, mine, ours‘ at the Immigration Museum in Melbourne, Australia. Photo by K. Korjonen-Kuusipuro, 2018.