Biomedicine: an ontological dissection

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Though ubiquitous across the medical social sciences literature, the term “biomedicine” as an analytical concept remains remarkably slippery. It is argued here that this imprecision is due in part to the fact that biomedicine is comprised of three interrelated ontological spheres, each of which frames biomedicine as a distinct subject of investigation. This suggests that, depending upon one’s ontological commitment, the meaning of biomedicine will shift. From an empirical perspective, biomedicine takes on the appearance of a scientific enterprise and is defined as a derivative category of Western science more generally. From an interpretive perspective, biomedicine represents a symbolic-cultural expression whose adherence to the principles of scientific objectivity conceals an ideological agenda. From a conceptual perspective, biomedicine represents an expression of social power that reflects structures of power and privilege within capitalist society. No one perspective exists in isolation and so the image of biomedicine from any one presents an incomplete understanding. It is the mutually-conditioning interrelations between these ontological spheres that account for biomedicine’s ongoing development. Thus, the ontological dissection of biomedicine that follows, with particular emphasis on the period of its formal crystallization in the latter nineteenth and early twentieth century, is intended to deepen our understanding of biomedicine as an analytical concept across the medical social sciences literature.



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