Sympathy and suspicion: torture, asylum, and humanity


  • Malinowski Memorial Lecture 2011.
  • This article was originally delivered as the 2011 Malinowski Memorial Lecture, for which I would like to thank Deborah James and the Department of Anthropology at the LSE for their generous invitation. The research for the article was made possible by the support of an Economic and Social Research Council Research Fellowship. I would like to thank Lori Allen, Janet Carsten, Magnus Course, Estelle d'Halluin, Matthew Engelke, Didier Fassin, Anthony Good, Ian Harper, Lotte Hoek, Alpa Shah, Jonathan Spencer, Sharika Thiranagama, Miriam Ticktin, and the anonymous reviewers for the JRAI, for their insightful feedback on various drafts, as well as the useful feedback from audiences in Zurich, Edinburgh, and Paris.

School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh, Chrystal Macmillan Building, George Square, Edinburgh EH8 9LD, UK.


This article examines the assessment of claims about torture in the British asylum process. It is compassion in the face of suffering that underlies much of the ethical objection to torture. Yet, at the same time, torture survivors, as with asylum seekers more broadly, are subjected to widespread suspicions about the genuineness of their claims. This article argues that the very process of imagined identification found in compassion can lie behind suspicion. Anthropology has largely treated otherness as a cause of fear and suspicion. However, the denial of another's suffering is not always about a failure to recognize mutual humanity. It can also be a product of a sense of fundamental similarity, based on assumptions about the mutual capacity to dissimulate. Ultimately, though, scepticism is on just as shaky ground as belief, as it is filtered through the lens of imagined identification. Denial is just as vicarious as acknowledgement.