The stethoscope goes digital: Learning through attention, distraction and distortion

Melissa Van Drie*, Anna Harris

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


For centuries, those training doctors have been faced with the challenges of standardising subjective experiences and constructing "the universal body" in learning situations. Various technologies have been introduced to address these challenges, with varying degrees of success. In this article we focus on the stethoscope, specifically the electrical and digital stethoscope models. Historical and social studies of medicine have already underlined the sociomateriality of learning in medicine. In this article we underscore the performative nature of teaching and learning in the sociomaterial context. We do so by juxtaposing ethnographic and historical events that stage electrical and digital stethoscopes. These are not documentations of everyday practices but rather reconstructions of choreographed performances for learning about the body. In these stagings, the novice is taught to focus attention and avoid distraction, when learning the sounds of "the body". Through engaging with, and comparing, different ethnographic and historic materials and artefacts, and through methodological reflection, we examine the importance not only of attention and distraction in learning a bodily skill, but also of dealing with distortion. We argue that these ethnographic and historic insights into distortion illuminate a neglected aspect of medical training, and more generally, in shaping sensory perceptions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)123-148
Number of pages26
JournalGesnerus - Swiss Journal of the History of Medicine and Sciences
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 6 Nov 2020


  • auscultation
  • digital stethoscope
  • electric stethoscope
  • listening
  • medical training
  • sensory studies
  • electrical stethoscope

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