One characteristic of the modern society is a clear division of labour and a high level of specialisation. Many professions, like surgery, astrophysics and archaeology necessitate a complex mix of manual, visual, technological and discursive skills – skills that are not readily available or easily accessible to people outside professional communities. Without the relevant skills, one is not only incapable performing the work, but also unable to see and say what members are medically, astronomically, and archeologically doing. Objects such as cystic arteries, optic pulsars and ancient post molds are not just there for one’s naked and untrained eye to see. What is relevant here is not so much the cognitive mechanisms of individuals, but the skills and practices that are shared among “a community of competent practitioners, most of whom have never met each other but nonetheless expect each other to be able to see and categorize the world in ways that are relevant to the work, tools, and artefacts that constitute their profession” (Goodwin, 1994; p. 615).
In this presentation, a general interest in «professional vision» and the observability and reportability of action will be investigated in the context of dentistry and dental education. With an approach informed by ethnomethodology and conversation analysis, the study investigates a series of seminars organized around live video broadcasts of endodontic procedures. In the seminars, groups of students under the guidance of a seminar leader are watching root canal treatments that take place in an adjacent room. During the broadcasted procedures, the seminar leaders continuously (and reg- ularly confidently) describe what the dentists do, see, think and feel. Central to these commentaries is the ability to see embodied actions in terms of formal procedures. However, there are also limits to this access. Despite the fact that the seminar leader and the dentist share an expertise in endodontics, not all aspects of professional conduct are similarly accessible or describable for an onlooker. For instance, while it is possible for seminar leaders to see that a dentist is searching for a root canal, it is much harder to describe in contingent detail what this searching consists of. In cases like this, the seminar leader might instead ask the dentist who is performing the procedure to explicate his or her actions and reasoning.
The investigated setting actualizes a number of questions of general concern. What does it mean to observe and describe the professional actions of others? To what extent, or in which ways, can vision and perception be shared? Are some features of professional action less accessible or describable than others? In the investigated setting, these questions are central to the members themselves as instructional concerns. However, the observability and describability of professional conduct are also central methodological concerns for the social scientists who want to analyze such practices. Given that expert sometimes are unable to identify what other experts are doing, to what extent are those same actions describable by non-experts.
Goodwin, C. (1994). Professional vision. American Anthropologist, 96(3), 606-633.