In this important new book, Gregory Matoesian adopts a novel methodological approach to show that the violation of rape victims
is reproduced in the courtroom during trial. Using tape recorded transcripts from actual trials, Matoesian analyzes the language
defense attorneys use in cross-examination as well as their modes for interpreting and classifying rape. He argues that
cross-examination recasts the act of sexual violation into a seemingly normal form of consensual sex. Through such a
transformation, women's voices and experiences are silenced thereby reproducing the dominance of the patriarchal discourse on
sex and sexuality.
Matoesian views courtroom talk about rape as a serious social problem as well as an empirical site for his theoretical interests: to
"anchor organizational talk squarely in the midst of social structure and power, and to situate that talk within contemporary
sociological theory: the theory of structuration" (p. 3). Drawing from Giddens' (1984) theory of structuration as well as feminist
theories on sexuality and domination (MacKinnon 1989), Matoesian unmasks the hidden structures of power which play out in the
micro-order of courtroom talk between defense attorneys and rape victims.
The greatest strength of the book lies in Matoesian's meticulous analysis of courtroom talk. While the notion that women are raped
again through the process of a trial is not a new one, Matoesian's methodological approach is. Utilizing a conversational analysis
approach (Sacks 1984; Zimmerman 1988), he analyzes 2,500 pages of court transcripts from three separate rape trials. Some of
his methods of analysis include: examining the rules in "turn taking," misunderstandings, mishearing, objection sequences, silences
and the syntax in question-answer sequences. By Matoesian's estimate, he spent 50 to 60 hours of careful analysis for every hour
of transcript. While the use of conversational analysis is the strength of the book, this exclusive methodological focus is also a
weakness. By focusing only on language, Matoesian neglects many other important non-verbal, visual elements of the courtroom.
All the theatrical elements of courtroom drama and performance -- the calculated gesture, the strategically raised eyebrow,
posture, dress and so on -- are missing. To his credit, Matoesian anticipates these criticisms arguing that to go "beyond the data of
talk would lose the subtle density of conversational behavior" (pp. 65-66). Further, he suggests it would create an "unmanageable"
proportion of data to analyze.
Matoesian's argument about losing the subtle density of the data is not entirely convincing. From my own research on the behavior
of trial lawyers in the courtroom, the visual and non- verbal elements of trial proceedings would only buttress his argument about
the purposes of cross-examination (Pierce 1991). To be fair, given the amount of data Matoesian collected, it would be
unreasonable to expect more. Nevertheless, at the very least, a brief discussion of the American adversarial system, the purposes
of direct and cross-examination and a review of other studies on the techniques used by trial lawyers would have been useful. This
kind of information would have been helpful in locating the micro order of courtroom talk in its social and historical context.
Matoesian's inattention to the larger legal context and to cross-examination in particular creates a related problem. Many of the
novel elements Matoesian claims to "discover" in the talk of cross-examination such as the way leading questions are used to
control witnesses are not surprising. According to Mauet's (1980) FUNDAMENTALS OF TRIAL TECHNIQUE, for example,
the very purpose of a leading question is to control the witness by suggesting a particular answer in the question itself. Then, what
exactly has Matoesian discovered? The defense attorney's intent matches the way he uses courtroom talk? This does not strike
me as a particularly surprising
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finding. Moreover, because Matoesian does not provide general background about our adversarial system, it is not clear whether
he thinks leading questions are features unique to rape trials -- or whether they take on a particular form in rape trials. Again,
some attention to the adversarial system in general and rape trials in particular would have helped to clarify this problem.
Finally, Matoesian's claim that no researcher has treated courtroom talk as a system of domination is inaccurate (p. 20). While his
book may be the first to use conversational analysis to study courtroom talk in rape trials, it is not the first to look at how legal
ideologies restructure conflicts involving victims. A number of feminist scholars have made similar arguments about how the
structure of trials on sexual assault, sex discrimination and immigration reproduce victimization (Bumiller 1988; Chancer 1987;
Schulz 1990). In fact, Kristin Bumiller's (1988) important book THE CIVIL RIGHTS SOCIETY: THE SOCIAL
CONSTRUCTION OF VICTIMS explores all these issues. A more careful reading of the relevant literature would show that
Matoesian's findings support previous research on these issues.
In sum, a more careful contextualization of the micro order of courtroom talk in rape trials within our contemporary legal system
would have improved Matoesian's overall analysis. Moreover, attention needs to be given to the work of feminist scholars,
especially that of Kristin Bumiller, which address many of the questions he raises. Despite these criticisms, however, Matoesian
does make an important empirical contribution by using conversational analysis to study the domination of rape victims through
Bumiller, Kristin. 1988. THE CIVIL RIGHTS SOCIETY: THE SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION OF VICTIMS. Baltimore: Johns
Hopkins University Press.
Chancer, Lyn. 1987. "New Bedford Massachusetts, March 6, 1983 - March 22, 1984: The `Before and After' of a Group Rape,"
GENDER & SOCIETY vol. 1, no. 3 (September).
Giddens, Anthony. 1984. THE CONSTITUTION OF SOCIETY. Berkeley: University of California Press.
MacKinnon, Catherine. 1989. TOWARD A FEMINIST THEORY OF THE STATE. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Mauet, Thomas. 1980. FUNDAMENTALS OF TRIAL TECHNIQUE. Boston: Little Brown.
Pierce, Jennifer. 1991. GENDER, LEGAL WORKERS AND EMOTIONAL LABOR: WOMEN AND MEN AT WORK IN
CORPORATE LAW FIRMS. PhD dissertation. Department of Sociology: University of California, Berkeley. Sacks, H. 1984.
"Notes on Methodology." In J. Atkinson and J. Heritage (eds.), STRUCTURES OF SOCIAL ACTION. New York: Cambridge
Schulz, Vicki. 1990. "Telling Stories About Women and Work: Judicial Interpretations of Sex Segregation in the Workplace in Title
VII Cases Rasing the Lack of Interest Argument," HARVARD LAW REVIEW vol. 103.
Zimmerman, Don. 1988. "On Conversation: The Conversation Analytic Perspective." In J. Anderson (ed.), COMMUNICATION
YEARBOOK, vol. 11. Beverly Hills: Sage.