The (Re-)Socialization of Technical Objects in Patient Networks: The Case of the Cochlear Implant

The (Re-)Socialization of Technical Objects in Patient Networks: The Case of the Cochlear Implant

Markus Spöhrer
DOI: 10.4018/jantti.2013070103
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In this paper an effort is made to describe the processes of technical stabilization of the epistemic thing cochlear implant in certain stabilized scientific environments and the way in which such stabilizations are fortified, discoursified and medially produced. Such technical stabilizations can only be accomplished by rigorously excluding attributes of the social. However, the cochlear implant is born out of the need to enable participation in “normal” social life and is thus a thoroughly social actor attributed with certain social attachments. With the translation into patient networks, the technical object cochlear implant is re-inscribed with attributes of the social and is thus subject to destabilization, remediatization and re-socialization again. Being transferred from the stabilized context of biological and medical science, the discourses of the cochlear implant are accumulated with elements of ethical or judicial discourses in which social issues are in the foreground. This will be illustrated by analyzing certain scientific viscourses and images which are used as illustrations for the successful communication between implanted children and their parents in practical guides for parents with deaf children.
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One of the central questions of techno-social and philosophical studies of science related to knowledge transfer is how knowledge acts “if it leaves its laboratory context and is adapted into science and society” (Hoof et al., 2011, p.7, trans. MS). Already when objects of knowledge (epistemic things) are assembled, which are the objects of the research process (cf. Rheinberger, 1997, p.28), they are marked and stabilized as either scientific or social things in relation to specific medial environments and discursive practices (cf. Lösch et al., 2001, p.7). Technical objects can also be discursively marked and used as social or scientific objects at which specific epistemes of the social or of science and the specific environments to which they are related reciprocally condition each other. If one considers “technical objects” as “technical things” as defined by Rheinberger (1997) or as Latourian “Black Boxes” (1999) whose stability significantly consists of their technical and medial conditions, one may one the one hand inquire about the processes of stabilization of such technical objects and fields of knowledge and on the other hand about the “[…] interfaces between different kinds of fields of knowledge and the processes of transformation, which knowledge experiences while passing through these different fields of knowledge” (Hoof et al., 2011, p.7, trans. MS). Such processes of transformation are the object of investigation of this paper. However in this case an effort is made to describe transformations of fields of knowledge / discourses on the basis of a specific example: The (re-)socialization of the otolaryngological-technical object cochlear implant (CI).

As an acoustic prosthesis for hearing impaired, the CI was developed to function as a means of eliminating social hardships. The need for the development of an implant for the improvement of the physiological hearing is based on the discourses on psychosocial, emotional or pedagogical disadvantage of hearing impaired (cf. Hermann-Röttgen, 2010; Arndt, 2010, p.3) and thus discoursified as “social”. During the process of its technical stabilization in an experimental system the implant is translated from an uncertain, vaguely defined and partially contradictory epistemic thing into a well defined technical thing, a technical component or device (cf. Rheinberger, 1997, pp. 28-29).

During the process of stabilization, the epistemic thing is isolated from the aforementioned inscriptions of the social, which is conditioned by the stabilized environment of the corresponding experimental system (particular disciplinary traditions, discourses, viscourses1 and other stabilized technical objects). Not until the translation, the enrolement, the re-habilitation or re-socialization in patient networks (cf. Callon, 1986), the technical object CI is inscribed with attributes of the social again. In the case of the CI, such a “transfer of knowledge” (from scientific context to a social context) caused “otolaryngological controversies” (cf. Hodges et al., 2001, pp.417-433), which is a result of the destabilization of the technical object during its retranslation into the state of an epistemic thing.

The premise of this paper is thus, that the technical object is subject to production or inscription at any given time. It is subject to constant processes of translation, which, in relation to the experimental environment, become manifest in specific processes of mediation producing and reproducing certain discourses or viscourses. The same applies for attributions to and demarcations of disabled / normal and deaf / hearing.

In order to exemplify such processes, scientific-medicinal and popularized representations of the ear as well as representations of successful communication in guidebooks for parents with deaf children will be analyzed.

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