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On the Assembly Line: Neuroimaging Production in Clinical Practice

Sociological Reflections on the Neurosciences

ISBN: 978-1-84855-880-9, eISBN: 978-1-84855-881-6

Publication date: 17 October 2011


This chapter presents a sociological analysis of the work involved in producing neuroimaging scans used in clinical practice. Drawing on fieldwork in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) units in hospitals and free-standing imaging centers; in-depth interviews with technologists, radiologists, and neurologists; and reviews of relevant medical literatures, this analysis demonstrates how assembly line techniques structure neuroimaging work. Neuroimages (after being ordered by the referring clinician) are created in an image production line where scans of brains, breasts, livers, and other body parts are all produced: although some facilities may focus on one area of the body, most create an array of scans. Following MRI scans as they are produced demonstrates how medical work emphasizes repetition, specialization, and efficiency – key features of mass production. On the medical assembly line, the organization of work aims to transform patients into objects – ones that multiply as scans are created and circulated. Neurologists, radiologists, and technologists are positioned as skilled workers who manage the flow of bodies and the production of knowledge with the aim of producing health or, at the very least, knowledge of illness. Patients are also actors who actively impact the imaging production process. Previous scholarship has shown that diagnostic work involves a distributed form of expertise; one that involves patients, other medical professionals, machines, and neurologists. This chapter demonstrates that the deployment and synchronization of this expertise is a form of labor, involving distinct professions, professional hierarchies, and reimbursement systems. Working conditions are central to the production of MRI scans as knowledge and contribute to the social shaping of neuroimaging techniques.


Joyce, K. (2011), "On the Assembly Line: Neuroimaging Production in Clinical Practice", Pickersgill, M. and Van Keulen, I. (Ed.) Sociological Reflections on the Neurosciences (Advances in Medical Sociology, Vol. 13), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 75-98.



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