With establishment of an agreed-upon legal definition of refugee as a person with a “well-founded fear of past and future persecution,” recognizing fear, evaluating its plausibility and verifying its rationality has been at the core of asylum law in the more than 145 countries signatories of the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Although researchers have been concerned with the interpretation of emotions in immigration law, no particular attention has been placed to the development of policy instruments that aim to differentiate legal fear of persecution from psychological trauma. A better understanding of what makes someone fearful in the eyes of the law can inform U.S. efforts to promulgate sound legal practices that accounts for the complexities of translating experiences into legal and medical evidence. In addition to contributing to the training of a graduate student in the methods of empirical, scientific data collection and analysis, the project would enhance scientific understanding by broadly disseminating its findings to organizations invested in discovering more effective methods for communicating science around legal practice to the public. The project would also broaden the participation of groups historically underrepresented in science.

This project explores how medical and psychological science related to trauma is engaged in evidentiary proceedings related to asylum claims. During twelve months of a sociolegal and ethnographic context with a high concentration of refugees (and thus appropriately saturated to constitute a representative study population), the researcher will examine the entirety of asylum process, observing the day-to-day activities of government officials, attorneys, asylum seekers, medical expert witnesses, and organizational staff. She will specifically analyze narrations of fear in asylum interviews, evaluations of fear in medico-legal reports, and evidence of fear in asylum decisions. Data will be collected using archival research, interviews, and participant observation in a range of governmental, legal, and peri-governmental contexts. The findings of this research will help advance the study of legal culture, bureaucratic institutions, and policy practices where law and medicine meet.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
Standard Grant (Standard)
Application #
Program Officer
Jeffrey Mantz
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
Stanford University
United States
Zip Code