CT Suite

The Work of Diagnosis in the Age of Noninvasive Cutting

CT Suite

Body, Commodity, Text

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Book Pages: 416 Illustrations: 42 b&w photographs Published: December 2008

Anthropology > Medical Anthropology, Medicine and Health, Science and Technology Studies

In CT Suite the doctor and anthropologist Barry F. Saunders provides an ethnographic account of how a particular diagnostic technology, the computed tomographic (CT) scanner, shapes social relations and intellectual activities in and beyond the CT suite, the unit within the diagnostic radiology department of a large teaching hospital where CT images are made and interpreted. Focusing on how expertise is performed and how CT images are made into diagnostic evidence, he concentrates not on the function of CT images for patients but on the function of the images for medical professionals going about their routines. Yet Saunders offers more than insider ethnography. He links diagnostic work to practices and conventions from outside medicine and from earlier historical moments. In dialogue with science and technology studies, he makes a significant contribution to scholarship on the visual cultures of medicine.

Saunders’s analyses are informed by strands of cultural history and theory including art historical critiques of realist representation, Walter Benjamin’s concerns about violence in “mechanical reproduction,” and tropes of detective fiction such as intrigue, the case, and the culprit. Saunders analyzes the diagnostic “gaze” of medical personnel reading images at the viewbox, the two-dimensional images or slices of the human body rendered by the scanner, methods of archiving images, and the use of scans as pedagogical tools in clinical conferences. Bringing cloistered diagnostic practices into public view, he reveals the customs and the social and professional hierarchies that are formulated and negotiated around the weighty presence of the CT scanner. At the same time, by returning throughout to the nineteenth-century ideas of detection and scientific authority that inform contemporary medical diagnosis, Saunders highlights the specters of the past in what appears to be a preeminently modern machine.


CT Suite is a valuable addition to the small literature which deals with medical imaging technologies as sociotechnical networks. The book is notable for its centering on one particular technological apparatus, anchoring a rich account of the practices, activities and rituals that surround it. It provides a compelling and well-illustrated insight into the technological practice of Computed Tomographic Scanning. It is also an engaging read, Saunders’ use of the conversation of the radiological staff throughout the text is not only informative, but conveys the sense of familiarity and humour in the working atmosphere of the C.T. Suite.” — Hannah Drayson, Leonardo Reviews

“[CT Suite] is a nuanced analysis of the cultural potency of diagnostic imaging at a particular moment in time (the mid 1990s), rich in contextual detail and superbly attuned to the shoptalk through which expertise and authority are encoded and claimed.” — B. Bianco, Choice

“[A]s soon as one starts reading Barry Saunders’s important book, CT Suite: The Work of Diagnosis in the Age of Noninvasive Cutting, one can realize that he is taking us on a new journey. Saunders does not simply provide an analysis of the visualization produced by CT. Rather, similar in vein and analytical focus to Walter Benjamin’s magisterial work on Charles Baudelaire (Benjamin 1983), he ‘walks’ through the CT suite to make the reader ‘experience’ the medical gaze through his insightful exposition.” — Amit Prasad, American Ethnologist

[A] magnificent book about the making of radiological knowledge with CT. CT Suite is a thorough investigation of the histories, practices, negotiations, and structures that enable radiological knowledge and diagnostic certainty.” — Anne Beaulieu, Bulletin of the History of Medicine

CT Suite is a fascinating interpretation of the processes of medical imaging—from scanning to learning to filing to diagnosing. Barry F. Saunders’s ethnographic material is excellent. He captures the constant negotiation over the stories that scans tell, and he locates these stories in a history of medical detective work stretching back to Poe.” — Joseph Dumit, author of Picturing Personhood: Brain Scans and Biomedical Identity

“In this remarkable ethnography Barry F. Saunders guides his readers through a suite of hospital rooms, in so doing immersing them, chapter by chapter, ever deeper in the practices of computerized tomography (CT scanning). Saunders argues that the discourse and practices associated with the ‘noninvasive’ gaze of CT are haunted by the nineteenth century, in particular by the anatomized corpse and the techniques of knowing associated with it. Drawing to great advantage on the works of Edgar Allan Poe and Walter Benjamin, he highlights the ‘intrigue’ associated with CT rituals that result in diagnostic evidence and ultimately the designation of diseases in living bodies. Beautifully written, this book is a must read for everyone captivated by technologies of bodily knowledge.” — Margaret Lock, author of Twice Dead: Organ Transplants and the Reinvention of Death

“This pathbreaking ethnographic study brilliantly analyzes the untidy rituals that make up quotidian clinical practice to illuminate just how physicians create meanings from CT scans and how CT scans create meanings for physicians. It will be thought-provoking reading for social scientists, medical historians, art historians, clinicians, and anyone else who wants to understand better the rituals that make up what we have come to see as modern medicine.” — Joel D. Howell, author of Technology in the Hospital: Transforming Patient Care in the Early Twentieth Century


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Barry F. Saunders is Associate Professor of Social Medicine, Adjunct Associate Professor of Anthropology and of Religious Studies, and Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine and of Family Medicine at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He is also an emergency room doctor at Chatham Hospital in Siler City, North Carolina.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments vii

Introduction 1

1. Reading and Writing 13

2. Cutting 93

3. Diagnosing 130

4. Curating 159

5. Testifying and Teaching 199

6. Exposition 275

Impression 300

Notes 307

Clinical Terms and Jargon 345

Bibliography 349

Illustrations 375

Index 379
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Winner, 2009 Gregory Bateson Prize for best interdisciplinary ethnography, presented by the Society for Cultural Anthropology

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4123-9 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4104-8
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