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Technology and Society Intertwined

A visit with Amit Prasad, Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology

By Kelly Washatka
Published: - Topics: outsourcing sociology MRI CT scan Sociology of Science
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Dr. Amit Prasad, Professor of Sociology, began his interest in MRI research as an undergraduate, when, due to a bad headache, he got a CT scan. When he was given the results, he was fascinated by the technology’s ability to create images of the inner body. At the same time he was curious about what he couldn’t see in the images. From that point on development and application of computer-assisted technology such as MRI became Dr. Prasad’s focus in his academic career.

At first, Dr. Prasad didn’t consider the social aspects of technological development, focusing instead on the changes in interpretation connected with advancements in technology. However, as he took his MRI research global he became intrigued by the way different cultures affected the ways MRI clinics developed and were integrated into those cultures. During visits to India, Dr. Prasad says he “would find that there were different MRI clinics popping up. I would ask about when they came, what they were doing, and if it was very similar to the way they do it in the United States.” During his Master’s degree, Dr. Prasad worked with an advisor who helped reinforce his interest in these societal effects. Having moved from aeronautical studies to sociology himself, this advisor helped combine Dr. Prasad’s interest in the MRI’s technical and social aspects. The Master’s candidate soon found that science and sociology were much more connected than he expected.

Sociology of Science has since become Dr. Prasad’s professional field and his passion. In explaining this relatively new and complicated field, he references Emile Durkheim, the “father of sociology,” who believed that the study of society was to be founded on an examination of facts. Durkheim sought to extend and apply the scientific method to the social aspects of life. “Sociology was born from the sciences,” Dr. Prasad says as he explains the complex study; “something I try to show in my research is how the social and technological are intertwined, which is something we forget about.” His direct example of this linkage—although everything we discussed in some way touches on this idea—is the issue of claustrophobia among MRI patients. The nervous movement that most patients exhibit when inside the restrictive tube of the MRI machine causes distortion in the data. Because of this social problem, the technology was adapted. By taking results from one-third of the data collected previously, patients can exit the stressful situation as quickly as possible; at the same time, the data that is actually collected provides a much clearer image.

Dr. Prasad is able to draw on simple, relatable examples like this one quite effortlessly. When talking about how he discusses the sociology of science with his students he presents another example, this one about the greenery on campus. Automatically, we call it “natural” but it has been “cultured” in a way, for example in its pruning and placement on campus. So the questions surrounding sociology of science “are not theoretical questions; they actually affect our understanding of the world, and how we see ourselves as a part of it.” This perspective also affects the way we understand what Dr. Prasad calls the “violent” outcomes from technology, including not only military equipment but issues like pesticide use and global warming as well. These must also be considered from both technological and social points of view. It is not merely a matter of bad people using technology, nor of undesirable outcomes being an inherent aspect of technology.

Dr. Prasad states that the essential factor of social interaction with technology is what he calls transnational flow. This term focuses on the way technology develops. As Dr. Prasad describes it, one of the main goals in his research is to see “how these complex aspects of transnational flow play out.” This investigation includes examining what role identity plays, what social factors are involved, and how innovation takes place in context with those factors. The typical view of technology’s development is that, as Dr. Prasad explains, “there is a person who has an idea…he or she is the inventor. Then the idea is implemented, which becomes your technology. Then it diffuses to society.” At this point he brings his hands together, locking his fingers, and corrects the idea: “actually it is much more intertwined. Right at the outset science and society are much more together.” According to Prasad, it is actually the flow of international people, knowledge, and technology that is the crucial factor in the innovation process.

To illustrate transnational flow, he delves into the history of the MRI. Most of the development happened in the UK in the 1970’s, with further advancement and research shifting to the USA in the ‘80’s. Dr. Prasad points out that for both of these countries the point at which major developments on the MRI were being made corresponded with an increase in the international community’s presence. It is the country that has the largest international presence that has the greatest ability for technological advancement.

Another reason for the shift in the location of MRI research was the disparity in the research environments for medical technologies. “The difference with the US,” Dr. Prasad explains, “is that it proliferated with the business strategies of the radiologist, largely in the private clinics. In India it is happening now…because both these places have got a much more free-market kind of proliferation and usage of MRI going on.” Along with this contrast in environments, the hospitals in the USA characteristically sought collaboration with universities, which drew the international scientists. Dr. Prasad explains the UK’s relative decline in the area, observing, “The UK…has a national health service, so it’s much more controlled. The UK actually lost out because they could not compete.” The USA currently has around half of the world’s MRIs, while the UK has had to close down its two major MRI clinics.

Now, with broadband technology, the international community doesn’t need to immigrate in order to share their knowledge in real time. Transnational flow has become more about international knowledge than physical presence. This change is especially apparent in the interactions between the USA and India regarding the MRI. In the USA “the cost of health care has been going up…and quite a bit of the cost is the radiologist who interprets the images. In India you can get it a lot cheaper, and there are people who are trained well. So what ends up happening is…you can send the MRI images to India, and there are radiologists who can interpret them and send it back.” In terms of these rising costs and differing market, Dr. Prasad notes that “with regard to the cost of healthcare in the USA, in order to compete—or even to survive—there are people who are trying to do this.”

Such a strategy amounts, of course, to outsourcing. Perhaps necessary for certain areas such as medical transcription, it might also be considered a collaborative process in areas like drug trials. But Dr. Prasad recognizes the forbidding connotations accompanying the term. Fears of identity theft and job loss are among them. He debunks these fears by point out that “75% of data fraud actually occurs in the USA itself” and highlighting the shortage of IT-trained personnel in the USA. What he does acknowledge is the cultural differences about medical privacy—which is to say that India has none. However, as the international connection has been developed further, the HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) laws are now followed. Thus India observes the same standards for protecting individually identifiable health records and electronic information as does the USA.

Dr. Prasad believes that transnational flow is essential to technological growth and that the future of transnational flow is in outsourcing and similar international connections. One major goal of his research is to create an open debate about topics that, like outsourcing, generate such a knee-jerk negative reaction; even in a world where “so many people don’t have jobs, and there are so many hardships…it links the question of science to economy and to society.” Dr. Prasad insists that it is not just a matter of addressing the questions at hand, but of understanding and helping to craft the new questions that will arise: “With globalization the world is changing very dramatically. How do we debate these issues so that the interests of people become a part of doing science itself?”