ASA Decennial Conference - Anthropology and Science

Seeing and knowing: the use of images in scientific practice

Contact Convenor: Simon Cohn

Department of Anthropology, Goldsmiths College
New Cross
London SE14 6NW

Panel abstract

The many associations in language between seeing something and knowing it has been noted for centuries. Yet the majority of recent studies of science and technology have tended to ignore the role of images in scientific practice. By doing so they have perhaps inadvertently reproduced the assumption that such images simply act as illustrations to an argument or theory that primarily exists in written form. This panel, however, will concentrate on the ways in which images in many branches of science and medicine actually form and shape the knowledge, and so serve as a central means by which ideas are conceived and communicated. The papers will draw on a examples in which the implicit and explicit cultural conventions in formulating these representations are as crucial as the methodology that is championed as the hallmark of modern science. The overall theme of the panel, therefore, shall be that a key part of the technology of knowledge production is therefore the technology of image production itself.

Spectacular: An ethnography of Calcutta gastroenterology

Stefan Ecks, South Asia Institute, University of Heidelberg

This paper presents an ethnography of gastroenterology in Kolkata (Calcutta), India. Over the last decade, the spectacular ability of gastric endoscopy to make visible even the darkest corners of the human bowels has led to this sub-discipline's almost unchallenged hegemony in the competitive field of medical diagnostics. The powers of visualization give allopathy (the Indian term for biomedicine) a competitive edge that none of the other medical systems has. In the patients' perspective, "getting a test" goes beyond a regular consultation with a doctor and often serves to signal to family and friends that something serious is going on. An endoscopy is seen as much more "scientific" than the impromptu diagnosis done by regular GPs. To benefit from the halo of science, healers of all medical specialisation nowadays refer their patients to these labs. From the point of view of many non-allopathic practitioners, specialised diagnostic centres are not even doing "allopathy," but reveal the truth of the body independent of therapeutic specialisations. Therefore, doctors of homeopathy and Ayurveda see a fierce competition with allopaths in terms of therapy, but not in the field of diagnostics. The paper will focus on doctors' perceptions of patients: why they come to get an endoscopy done, how they perceive this highly intrusive procedure, and how they interpret the visual findings.

Disciplining vision in animal biotechnology

Cristin Grasseni, University of Bergamo

The focus of this paper is the selective vision of breed experts in its relation to the practice of industrial dairy farming. The aim is to suggest a way to look at the professional vision that - literally - shapes cows. Drawing on the recent social history of science and on Latour’s actor-network theory, I focus on the disciplining of vision and the modes of "technical mediation" in the world of animal husbandry and zoo-technology. I wish to show how the disciplining of the breeder's vision is instrumental to the industrialisation of the animal body. With the aid of photographs and diagrams I shall highlight the specificity of such vision, its underlying agenda of translating the cow's body into quantifiable units, and the social context of heightened competition which surrounds this "scientific" gaze. The "correct" appreciation of form accompanies the corresponding breeding skill - as the capacity to produce good shapes for performances and reproduction. Cattle fairs are social occasions for the display of the skill of looking at cattle in a highly selective, disciplined and regimented way. In fact, they are meant as didactic exercise for the audience of breeders and farmers.

Horizontal cuts & vertical penetration:  the “flesh and blood” of image fabrication in the operating theaters of interventional radiology

Christina Lammer, University of Vienna

In my presentation I analyze surgical and radiological practices of how the blood flow is being explored, rendered visible and treated. For this I use material of my ethnographic research, which I conducted in the operating theaters of interventional radiology at the University Clinic of Radiology / General Hospital in Vienna. I am particularly interested in notions of invasiveness and how they are permanently transformed in this clinical area. Continual inventions of new technologies in surgery as well as in radiology lead necessarily to a decomposing of what terms like invasive, minimal- and non-invasive mean. However shifting the meanings of invasiveness for patients and radiological personnel are, this notion is crucial, because it marks a cultural and epistemic turn in medicine, which is already far advanced. In the operating theaters of interventional radiology surgical and digital imaging proceedings melt into one another, transform the integrity of the patient’s body through particular ways of staging and through a specific choreography between the physicians’ hands and eyes.   

Framing experiences: getting to know Scotland’s mountains

Katrin Lund, University of Aberdeen

Fieldwork with hillwalkers in Scotland has taught me that although walking the hills in Scotland is seen as a way to get to know the country it is also claimed to be as much about getting to know yourself.  By using a digital camera to record my walks with fellow walkers I have attempted to understand how this happens and also how it can provide reflective viewpoints upon the ethnographic work in question. Walking in mountains is a physical activity that requires awareness and close inspection at the same time it offers the walker moments to gaze over and into the far distances which the open space of the countryside and the altitude of the hills provide.  Different conditions make different demands on how the body engages with the surroundings and the attention shifts from an ‘acute awareness of the micro-environment to the larger situation’ as one Scottish hill walker phrased it.  Moreover, these shifting ways of seeing also have to be understood in relation to the hillwalker’s embedded knowledge, skills and techniques as well as external conditions such as weather, ground condition and company of other hillwalkers.  Thus it appears that walking requires simultaneously an external and an internal gaze.  The question brought forth is what this can tell us about the ethnographic gaze and how photographic images can help us to understand it.

Seeing the light: an account of coming to know what happens when photons and matter meet

Susan Molyneux-Hodgson, University of Sheffield

Generally speaking, scientists do not engage in reflecting upon the ontological status of the worlds they study, nor do they question the epistemological bases upon which they arrive at ‘findings’. The representations through which the world is visualised within scientific work, for example, graphs, formulae, tables, pictures and diagrams, whilst widely accepted (by scientists) as being open to interpretation, are assumed to represent something, in a way which is natural, usually via technologies that somehow map onto the represented phenomenon, rather than creating or transforming it. Given that much of the world that is the subject of scientific work is not directly accessible to study, so the world comes to be seen and described through processes of manipulation of representations, modelling and simulation. There are times, however, when the relations between ‘representational device’ and ‘represented object’ must be made explicit. Educational contexts, for example, are a situation in which the status and meaning of representations must be discussed, otherwise how could a novice scientist learn what these representations are standing for and what meanings they hold for the scientific community? Much research in social and cultural studies of science has focussed on scientists and their research work but few studies have considered what comes before; how are people educated and trained to appreciate the representations, to give them meaning (apparently shared), and to manipulate the representations in meaningful ways. In this paper, I will explore issues around the nature of the physical world, its representation and how it comes to be understood, through a consideration of a variety of texts which have all served a pedagogical purpose, for example, text books, lab journals, theses and popular science writing, mostly – but not exclusively – in the field of light/matter interaction. Through analysis of representations within these texts I will give an account of the ways in which light and matter are visualised and how what it means “to know” about ‘invisible’ phenomena is constructed.

Views from within: configuring patients’ endoscopic gaze

Maud Radstake, University of Maastricht, The Netherlands

Medical imaging technologies enable doctors to see inside living human bodies. Certain devices produce ‘live’ images, which sometimes can be watched by patients as well. This paper is based on ethnographic fieldwork on one such technology: sigmoidoscopy. In this particular endoscopic examination, a small camera is entered into the rectum and produces video images of the lower large intestine in real-time. Although such images seem to be windows to the body, they are far from transparent intermediaries. Rather than a source of information from which knowledge can be collected, they are constitutive for medical knowledge. My point in this paper is that real-time endoscopic images do not merely mediate professional medical knowledge, but also patients’ knowledge about their bodies.In the course of referral, preparation, endoscopic examination, and communication of results, patients acquire an endoscopic gaze. Undergoing endoscopy changes the way in which patients look at their bodies, and turns patients’ bodies into referents of the images on screen. I will use examples from my fieldwork to show how bodies are translated into images and images into knowledge claims proposed to and eventually accepted by patients. Those translations are conceptualized as work done by patients, technological devices, doctors,  media and socio-cultural conventions.

Categorising people, visualising brains

Andreas Roepstorff, Aarhus University, Denmark

Functional brain mapping provides a set of technologies and practices that allows to transform categories of people into colourful pictures of brains. On one hand, this enables the generation of a novel, interrelated body of knowledge which may be applied outside the field of brain mapping itself. On the other, it carries with it all the well-known perils of categorisation, such as the materialisation and reification of abstract identities. By way of examples it will be argued that an anthropologically informed analysis of ‘how categories work’ may be useful at two levels: for an understanding of how the dynamics of the research practices unfolds and for a critique of the process whereby facts generated within one scientific field are transported to other spheres of life. In both instances, images’ is central for the condensation and transportation of diverse meanings and ‘categories’ are one of the important conceptual motors propelling the movement.

Understanding icebox: a gift of life, spare parts, and a relay of life: popular Japanese representation of organ transplantation

Kaori Sasaki, Lancaster University

This presentation intends to analyse the way in which the popular motif for organ transplantation was articulated in Japan. Japanese society experienced a series of public debate to authorise organ transplantation from brain dead donors (especially) after the Japanese first cardiac transplantation in 1968.  During this moratorium (1968-1996), there were public concerns regarding the legal and social status of transplanted tissues/organs. Yet, throughout the media reportage since the first legally authorised transplant case was reported in March 1999, the term ‘a relay of life’, together with pictures of ice boxes–in which the donated organs were kept fresh and were transported to recipients’ place.--- became a dominant image in symbolising organ transplantation in Japan.  Indeed, this case was the break-though in Japanese organ transplant history because subsequent transplantation cases have since been reported. During the process of developing this motif for organ transplantation (i.e. a relay of life), the visualised image of rapid systematic transfer of organs in iceboxes played a significant role.  Thus, in this study, I wish to examine how this motif was articulated, especially the way in which this icon (i.e. icebox) was used, described and understood in Japan.

Do we evolve back to documenting knowledge in pictorial form?

Wolfgang Steffen, Institute of Astronomy, UNAM, Ensenada, Mexico & María Alejandra Sánchez Vázquez, University of Manchester

The fascination about the untouchable riddles of the universe is a strong driving force for students to take up a science related careers. The visual impact of (astro-)photography plays a key role in the attraction of astronomical books, television documentaries and exhibitions in museums. The recent scientific knowledge about the evolution of the universe, galaxies, black holes and stars adds a new dimension: time. However, few processes in outer space happen on timescales that we humans may experience directly. Over the last decade, computer animation has developed to a level that allows to overcome this frontier and put in our hand a new tool to compress or expand time at will. We can visualize science content to the public and colleagues in unforseen detail. Based on the experience with our Proyect Cosmovision, we discuss the impact of dynamic images on the process of learning scientific content. We shall also reflect on the dangers of a focusing on visual effects in learning for a young generation that seems to do very little reading and hence is less able to express its ideas in written form. Do we evolve back to a society that documents its history and knowledge in pictorial form?

Objects of thought: on art, science and technology

Graeme Were, University College London

The cultural convergence of art, science and technology has reinforced the special role that exists for art in technological innovation, by calling into question the very nature of intellectual creativity. There is now a growing awareness by educationalists that the intellectual skills carried by traditional arts and crafts are the very fabric of the technological future, a realisation that pushes education and learning into the forefront of this political arena. In considering these developments, this paper addresses the relationship between art and science and discusses how mathematics education is beginning to adapt to the new possibilities, potentials and agendas opened up by art’s new role as a technology of learning. Here I show how recent innovation in school curriculum design in Papua New Guinea harnesses geometric pattern as a tool for learning: it is both a carrier of mathematical thought and a visual device for shaping knowledge in Melanesian society. In doing so, this paper calls on anthropologists to re-examine the relationship between art and ways of knowing and to urgently readdress the bridge between art and science.

Tutoring the tomographic gaze: reading CT scans

Barry Saunders, UNC School of Medicine, Chapel Hill, NC

This paper describes how novitiate radiologists learn to read CT scans.  In part it will address issues of correctness and error--rationalised, decision-analytic dimensions of reading. But it will focus particularly on tacit dimensions of developing such expertise and knowledge.  Reading is informed by evaluative and aesthetic distinctions: recognition of the abnormal occurs in relation to one’s "friendship with the normal"; some lesions are called "ugly"; some scans constitute "beautiful demonstrations".  The tutoring of radiological vision spans a range of pedagogical practices: apprenticeships at the viewbox, didactic presentations, and interactive case conferences, including some in which novitiates occupy "the hotseat", and others which accentuate intrigue and valorize a kind of detective acumen.  Beyond seeing, reading comprises other paravisual craft skills: hanging films, thumbing text resources, dictating. All these skills are mastered through practice, in ritual settings, largely in teaching hospitals.  These practices and pedagogies are less concerned with patient relations (since patients are dramatically alienated from viewbox activity) than with collegial relations--hierarchies, interspecialty consultations--and relations with films, protocols, and archives.