Accepted Paper:

Seeing Eye to Eye: Multiple Embodiments of Vision in Ophthalmology  


Adam Baim (University of Chicago)

Paper short abstract:

In ophthalmology, the vision of both doctors and patients is essential for everyday clinical work. Elaborating on studies of sensation and bodily practice, this paper explores how ophthalmologic expertise is constituted through defining and modifying the embodied experience of seeing.

Paper long abstract:

The role of vision in expert communities has been fertile terrain for social studies of science and medicine, with great attention paid to the disciplining of visual perception and embodied practices of seeing. These issues are centrally important in studying ophthalmology, a medical specialty that not only treats eye disorders, but also demands skillful vision on the part of its practitioners. Drawing upon ethnographic field work, this paper argues that ophthalmologists constitute their expertise through managing several different embodiments of vision - both their own, and those of the patients they treat. I first explore how ophthalmologic techniques standardize and quantify patients' lived experience of vision, as well as the ways pharmaceutical and surgical therapies modulate vision by changing its literal embodiment in the tissues of the eye; in particular, I consider scenarios where patients' descriptions of their vision differ from "objective" accounts of visual function provided by ophthalmologists. I then discuss how ophthalmologists harness their own bodies and attentions to examine the subtle features of eye disease; to visualize the retina, for instance, an examiner must position her gaze in precise arrangement with both handheld instruments and the patient's eye. I further describe how these embodied skills are taught to ophthalmology trainees, and how ophthalmologists narrate their firsthand experience of seeing when communicating with peers. Ultimately, this paper proposes that ophthalmology is a field where "knowledge about the body" and "knowledge of the body" intersect to create unique configurations of sensory experience, embodied knowledge, and biomedical expertise.

Panel T111
Body, Science and Expertise