The Social Function of Medical Objects

This past weekend, I finished a first version of a paper I’ve been thinking about writing for several months. I used this paper to explore how epinephrine auto-injectors sometimes symbolize the hopes, fears, and dangers of living with food allergies. Additionally, it seems to me that talking about auto-injectors – teaching others how to use them, say, or advocating for stocking epinephrine in schools – can open the door to teaching people who don’t have experience with food allergies what it’s like to live with them and what precautions others can take to help keep them safe. In short, they have important social functions, as well as potentially life-saving properties.

These are the kind of insights that scholars in anthropology and science and technology studies (STS), my academic fields, often come up with. We like to look at technological objects like medical devices and ask, what social purpose does this object serve? This is not intended to undermine their value as medical tools at all. Rather, we ask these questions because we’ve witnessed some pattern of use or talk about an object that suggests that it’s gained an extra layer of importance to the people who use it to keep themselves healthy. We might also attach personal memories to an object, as I discussed in my previous post on the personal (medical) armamentarium.

I don’t want to give everything about my paper away until it’s finished up and headed to the presses. But here’s another example from literature in my field: the PET scan. PET scans are a kind of imaging technology that can highlight areas of high brain activity in real time. One of my favorite scholars, Joseph Dumit, wrote a couple articles and a book about PET scans. The book is called Picturing Personhood, and it is very readable for non-social scientists; he tried to make it interesting for the scientists he interviewed for his research.

He talks about how PET scanning evolved as a medical tool and he explains some of the scientific research that went into designing them and making them medically useful. In particular, when he was carrying out his research, PET scans were being used in medical research about mental illnesses that are passed on in families. He also talks about some of the additional layers of social meaning that have developed on top of the medical uses of PET scans. He coins the term “objective self-fashioning” to refer to the way that seeing your brain activity on a scan can make you reflect upon your own behavior in a new light. For some people, it can be empowering to see visual evidence of their brain function in front of them. It can also be a powerful tool for lawyers (especially TV lawyers!) who want to make arguments about whether or not their client was responsible for committing a particular crime.

But this is where things might get a bit tricky, too. Dumit worries that if we can see visual evidence of our brain activity, we might blame our actions on our brains, rather than on the decisions we make. What place does personal responsibility have in a society where we can see our brains doing things without us making conscious decisions? He doesn’t have an answer (and neither do I), but it’s an important social question.

I think Dumit’s work on PET scans nicely illustrates how powerful technological tools with important medical and research applications take on additional meanings as a consequence of their scientific functions. I think something similar goes on with epinephrine auto-injectors, and I’m currently figuring out exactly what that is.

I would love to hear from you what social function epinephrine auto-injectors play in your life! Feel free to leave comments or find me on Twitter!

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