Unexpected Subjects

Intimate Partner Violence, Testimony, and the Law

By Alessandra Gribaldo

Unexpected Subjects is an ethnography of the encounter between women’s words and the demands of the law in the context of adjudications on intimate partner violence. A study of institutional devices, it focuses on women’s practices of resistance and the elicitation of intelligible subjectivities. Using Italy as an illustrative case, Alessandra Gribaldo explores the problematic encounter between the need to speak, the entanglement of violence and intimacy, and the way the law approaches domestic violence. On this basis, she advances theoretical reflections on questions of evidence, persuasion, and testimony, and their implications for ethnographic theory. Gribaldo analyzes dynamics that create the victim-subject, shedding light on how the Italian legal system reproduces broader conditions of violence against women. This book will be of great interest to all social scientists concerned with gender and the law.

“Gribaldo’s vividly enlightening study of language in domestic violence hearings reveals an unresolved gap between women’s words and the law; between a victim’s speech and the law’s expectations. This is a central issue in current debates on trauma, violence, and testimony, and Gribaldo helps the reader to think on women’s hesitations not just as an expression of reticence but as another form of imagination, different from that required by law and the racial-patriarchal order of things. Also especially captivating is Gribaldo’s analysis of the difficulties the social sciences meet in inquiring into this area of ambivalence, fear, and violence that is stubbornly reproduced in our democracies.”

― Roberto Beneduce, co-author with Nigel Gibson of Frantz Fanon, Psychiatry and Politics


“Exploring the translation of violent experiences into words, Gribaldo reflects on the social logic of imprecision, ambivalence, and embellishment in establishing credibility. She makes important claims on the role of the speech act in the wake of domestic violence and shows us just how complicated that act is when it is framed by the court as a medium of verification.”

― Kelly Gillespie, author of “Before the Commission: Ethnography as Public Testimony”


“This is a fascinating study of the narratives of domestic violence constructed in Italian courts. Engaging ethnographically with socially unnerving contradictions, it shows how the law both offers recognition to those who make recourse to it and yet at the same time subjects them to distorting categorizations. Gribaldo also offers important insights into relations between anthropology and feminism.”

― Julia Hornberger, author of Policing and Human Rights: The Meaning of Violence and Justice in the Everyday Policing of Johannesburg 


Alessandra Gribaldo is Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Roma Tre University

5″ x 8″, 158 pp.

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Chapter 1. (Un)familiar violence

Violence degree zero
Mistreated subjects and intractable violence

Chapter 2. Wavering intentions

Recognize and speak the violence!
Maltrattamenti in famiglia and the abused subject
The experience of intimate partner violence: A crime with a story

Chapter 3. Confessing victimhood

Evidence and testimonial proof
The burden of evidence: experience
When evidence lies in the victim subject

Chapter 4. The gender of true-lying

The burden of persuasion: intention and biased evidence
Agency vs credibility
Oblique narratives: the imperfect victim



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