My main project at IIAS is rewriting my doctoral dissertation into a book manuscript. The manuscript, Technology, Clarity, and Uncertainty: An Ethnography of Biomedical Imaging in Phnom Penh, examines biomedical imaging practices in Cambodia’s rapidly changing capital. It is based on ethnographic research in hospital imaging wards and outside of clinical settings, and archival research in Cambodia and France on biomedical technologies since Independence in 1953. I consider a variety of imaging technologies, including x-ray and mammography, but focus on obstetrical and non-obstetrical ultrasound, which was not available until 1989 and has since proliferated, particularly in the private sphere. My analysis explores how imaging technologies circulate within unequal global flows of resources and expertise, and how biomedical images circulate between clinicians, patients, family members, and others.
I am interested in how technologies figure within health-related development projects that span different postcolonial moments, such as hospital building by the USSR in the 1960s and US corporate philanthropy in the first decade of the 2000s. Local training centers, the Ministry of Health, and multinational corporations situate their activities in relation to humanitarian logics of need as well as postsocialist logics of entrepreneurial development. In the book project, I will elaborate on how movements of technologies and resources relate to development imaginaries that are specific to Cambodia’s recent history, but may share features in common with other postcolonial (and post Cold War) development contexts in Asia and Africa.
In addition to the circulation of machines, I attend to the circulation of biomedical images, including their production in clinical settings, and movements outside, into personal medical files, fading family albums, and pagodas. These movements provoke conversation among patients, family members, health practitioners, and Buddhist healers about being able to “see clearly” as a form of biomedical and traditional medical expertise, and about aesthetic qualities of images themselves. Imaging technologies hold promise for improved diagnostics in a healing context that privileges therapeutics, yet imaging is not primarily about fact-making or mastery over the body. I explore how technologically mediated “seeing” into the body is associated with a host of uncertainties: about the quality of machines and training, doctor-patient ethics, and intervention from other-than-biomedical actors, such as spirits and ancestors. In the case of obstetrical ultrasound imaging, the color and clarity of ultrasound images provide highly desirable clues as to the transformations of fetal development. In dialogue with an emerging literature on photography in Southeast and South Asia, I analyze these visualizations as sensory ways of relating to the body and fetus.
A secondary objective for the IIAS fellowship period is to develop my next research project, a transdisciplinary study of scientific relations between Asia and Africa in the context of surveillance and containment of drug-resistant malaria. Both projects examine the circulations of biomedical objects and expertise to, from, and within Cambodia and are situated at the interface of anthropology, science and technology studies (STS), and visual studies.