Nathan Johnson

natejohnsonTitle: Assistant Professor

University: University of South Florida


Twitter: @natezilla


Description of Work:

My book-length project develops methodological concepts for exploring science, technology, and medicine through their information resources. The first half of the book outlines the methodological approach. The second half of the book is a historical study describing how librarians and information scientists have developed information infrastructure that refracts invention processes of scholarship and research. The book advocates using the methodological approach to continue investigating information infrastructure as a critical point of rhetorical invention.

Symposium Submission:

Infrastructural Methodology: Conceptual Tools for Medical and Health Discourse

This proposed paper would address three question areas on method from the CFP:

• What current methods need to be expanded? What methods should we move away from and why? What methods should we seek to explore or include?
• What methods are other fields using to investigate health and medical discourse, and should we consider adopting or adapting them?
• How can move our theories into a specific method/ological orientation? Should we?

In the paper, I outline a methodology that synthesizes existing work on genre in medical discourse with approaches from Science and Technology Studies (STS). I describe an approach for reading medical information infrastructure and analyzing it with a hybrid of historical and ethnographic interpretive practices. The strength of the approach is that is provides a mechanism for understanding how medical discourses are institutionalized and enacted in practice. The approach analyzes the rhetorical traffic between institutionalized standards and classifications and lived medical practice. The approach of the paper also addresses conceptual issues that arise when material rhetorics are considered.

Much previous research supports the paper’s methodology. Schryer’s article “Records as Genre,” demonstrates how medical records function as genres by shaping work practices (1993). Specifically, Schryer notes how some medical record keeping enables searching by generalizable keywords, which allows clinical records to be used more frequently for research in addition to medical practice. Many others from professional and technical communication (PTC) and STS have noted similar issues as they locate resistance between institutionalized discourse and lived health/medical discourse (Barton, 2005; Bowker & Star, 1999; Koerber, 2005; Schryer & Spoel, 2005). Much of this work consists of identify discursive translations that occur between the material artifacts and the lived practices of medicine. Schryer’s article and those like it provide the foundation for the infrastructural methodology I describe.

In this paper, I propose two sensitizing techniques that are informed by the previous research: duplications and translations. Duplications identify how standardized information reappears across different times and spaces to circumscribe practice. Examples of duplications include nutrition labels, popular medical textbooks, and electronic record forms. These institutionalized genres gain traction as they are built into larger information infrastructures. Although they don’t define lived practice, they do refract it with significant effect. Translations are the ways that standardized information is used in practice. For example, a translation would look at how a standardized nutrition label is used to inform eating habits as they are actually practiced. Although previous research has used similar methodological techniques, in this paper I provide an explicit methodological vocabulary for research. These vocabulary is inspired by Bowker and Star’s work on information infrastructure in STS (1999; 2005).

In addition to describe the methodological practice, I provide a case study to demonstrate its effectiveness. In 1839, at the suggestion of the Jöns Jacob Berzelius, Dutch Chemist Gerardus Mulder introduced the term “protein” into published literature. In a paper titled “On the Composition of Some Animal Substances,” Mulder suggested that the various types of animal food—then called albumin, fibrin, and gelatin—could all be understood as variations of the same radical. Mulder’s idea of a protein radical was eventually ridiculed and is one minor episode in a history of protein discourse.

Later in 1943, protein was standardized in U.S. RDA documentation. That same RDA documentation would subsequently scaffold government legislated food measurement and labeling practices throughout much of the Western World. This standardization and deployment of “protein” serves as some of the bedrock of contemporary health discussions. By looking at the decisions and controversies that allowed protein to move between technical and public spheres (Goodnight, 1982) and become standardized as a tool of measurement and control, my paper demonstrates how the traffic of protein standardization has become a biomedical tool to not just to assess, but deploy visions of human health that have real world effects.

After the first part of this paper that describes the methodology, the remainder of the paper has three parts. First, it traces the primary arguments circulating the idea of “protein” in chemistry, physiology, and nutrition science. This section highlights what participants in the technical sphere have said about it. Second, I show how the technical discussions of protein were transported from scientific to pseudo-scientific to public spheres, finally becoming stabilized as a part of government regulation, standardization, and labeling. I point out how different publics use the same standardized idea of protein to discuss health and well-being. Finally, I highlight changing notion of human health throughout the late 19th, 20th, and 21st century. This section also shows alternative discourses of how humans were statistically measured for health during the time period studied.

This paper provides a historical example with methodology that bridges humanistic and social scientific work. By looking at the historical evolution of a scientific classification and its migration through lived practiced, I describe a conceptual research technique that can be used to inform future studies. The benefits of this paper are that it provides working vocabulary to describe a methodology for research in medical discourse. It draws from methodological insight from genre studies, STS, and rhetorical studies.

Barton, E. (2005). Introduction to the special issue: The discourses of medicine. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 19(3), 245-248.

Bowker, G. & Star, S.L. (1999). Sorting things out: Classification and its consequences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Bowker, G.C. (2005). Memory practices in the sciences. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Goodnight, G.T. (1982). The personal, technical, and public spheres of argument: A speculative inquiry into the art of public deliberation. Journal of the American Forensice Association, 18, 214-227.

Koerber, A. (2005). “You just don’t see enough normal”: Critical perspectives on infant-feeding discourse and practice. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 19(3), 304-327.

Schryer, C.F. (1993). Records as genre. Written Communication, 10(2), 200-234.

Schryer, C. F., & Spoel, P. (2005). Genre theory, health-care discourse, and professional identity formation. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 19(3), 249-278.