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Although biomedical imaging is one of the fastest growing areas within medicine at present, many questions remain under explored. For example, are professional visions enhanced/developed with the introduction of new visual tools or do they become less important in diagnostic terms? Do new visual tools foster forms of de-skilling among medical professionals? How does the attention to images affect patients and lay visions more broadly?

Why are images and imaging tools relevant?

Forms of representation such as diagrams, graphs and pictures have always been central to scientific and medical practice. Images seem to be especially powerful for communicating ideas easily to a broader professional and non-professional audience. Images, in fact, allow complex forms of knowledge to travel among diverse scientific and medical specialities, and to be communicated to the public in a simplified and less technical manner.
Once images become part of a body of knowledge, they can be used to diffuse and stabilize the knowledge, crossing the boundaries of the scientific community and reaching, most often through the media, audiences of non-experts. Put in a new context, the meaning of a given image might also change. The case of IVF imaging technologies allows for an examination of how new meanings emerge and how 

these images mediate the creation of knowledge about the body and its understanding: for  instance, how these de-contextualized images – often distributed for commercial and personal uses – are reinterpreted in the pro-life discourse about the rights of the embryo; and how the visualization of embryos changes the experience of pregnancy, bringing it forward to an earlier point, and transforms the social understanding of the pregnant body.

The case of reproductive images

The field of reproductive medicine has been a prime example of how visual technologies (such as ultrasound) have had a central role in the changing understanding of the pregnant body and the public perception of the unborn foetus. Since the 1960s the possibility of viewing the foetus has allowed its dissociation from the female body. This has fostered the emergence of the “unborn patient” and has affected the public debate on abortion, shifting the balance of legal rights from the woman to the foetus. The advancement of IVF imaging technologies is refocusing the discussion on the unborn patient at the cellular level (i.e., moving back from the stage of the foetus to that of the embryo). IVF fostered a new understanding of the reproductive process, where images at the cellular stage (embryos and gametes) play a central role in contemporary imaginations of reproduction.

Some notes on methods

The project will consist of a qualitative case study on biomedical imaging in IVF, through detailed, in-depth data collection. One of the main opportunities offered by rigorous qualitative case studies is to investigate a certain phenomenon in context, using a variety of data sources. In this project, these will mainly include - but not be limited to - focus groups, in-depth interviews, ethnographic observations, visual data and document collection.

The flexibility offered by this methodology is particularly relevant for the aim of this study. The innovative contribution of this study is an integrative approach to understanding how biomedical imaging technologies and the development of professional and lay visions are involved in the changing conception of the body, through the case of IVF imaging technologies.

Detailed project overview: Remaking the Human Body [PDF 338KB]

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