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Public Communication of Science and Technology


The bodily construction of medico-scientific expertise
Medicine and bodies in Italian talk shows

Mauro Turrini   University of Padova, Italy

This presentation aims at analysing a new phenomenon inherent to the process of public (re-)construction of medical and scientific expertise. More specifically, I intend to point out the increasingly salience played by the body as a source of medical and scientific authority within the context of visual media representation.

Hans Peter Peters (2008: 133) writes: “The analysis of how scientific expertise in the media is constructed is an urgent research field”. I intend to approach this topic in a cultural and qualitative way, by combining studies of science and technology communication with an analysis of visual medical culture as well as the qualitative study of television programming and, more specifically, of talk shows. My first assumption is that medical and media technologies are representational tools that produce meaning at a specific moment. Several theoretical and historical overviews of the intersections between medicine and culture, as well as other cultural investigations of medicine’s visual culture, have shown that viewing instruments and techniques, especially the motion picture, have played a crucial role in the emergence of adistinctly modern mode of representation in Western scientific and public culture. This research has pointed out how the ethics of seeing could affect the framing of medical issues.

According to Hugh Crawford (1998: 42), “(medical movies and documentaries) underscore the troubling epistemological relations of optical technologies and people – of looking, looking through, and being looked at. Such relations seem transparent… but they are instead fraught with complexity and produce by their very transparency an unacknowledged and overdetermined way of viewing and acting in the world”.

This representational mode, geared to the decomposition and reconfiguration of bodies, is usually associated with the regulation and control of the body, the modifiability and perfectibility of the body in combination with the medical knowledge. I would like to apply this analysis to the construction of scientific expertise, which, as studies of science and technology communication have demonstrated, is radically different from a transparent translation of scientific knowledge. In this sense, it would seem very useful to shift from the analysis of medical movies and documentaries to general communicative spaces where implicit conceptions about science and society surface more neatly.

This observation led me to analyse talk shows, which, according to the numerous cultural commentators of this TV genre, are a peculiar form of public sphere based on conflictual situations, where diverse social groups discuss, negotiate and dispute (Livingstone and Lunt 1994). One of the recurring oppositions on which this TV format is constructed is the opposition between experts and lay people. In this sense, I think that STS-oriented research on the construction of the role of scientists as public communication experts may be complementary to a qualitative research on talk shows focused on issues of voice, expression, and other features of the performative reconstruction and deconstruction of scientific expertise.

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