Carson Prize 2023: Michele Ilana Friedner

The Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) has awarded the 2023 Rachel Carson Prize to Michele Ilana Friedner for her book Sensory Futures: Deafness and Cochlear Implant Infrastructures in India by (University of Minnesota Press 2022). 

The award committee received 21 books for consideration and shortlisted 6 works for this year’s prize, evaluating them for their overall scholarly qualities and their contributions to opening new avenues for public debate and social change. The committee unanimously found Sensory Futures: Deafness and Cochlear Implant Infrastructures in India to be exemplary in all these criteria.

Nuanced and sophisticated, Friedner’s book portrays the realities of ‘sensory normality’ when deaf children are provided with new hearing capacities through Cochlear Implant (CI) technology in India. By documenting the socio-infrastructural worlds that CI affords and constrains, Friedner invites the reader to attend to diverse and multi-sensorial processes by which knowledge and experiences of the world are produced and valued. A rich ethnography with deaf children and their families, audiologists, speech and language pathologists, surgeons, CI manufacturers, and government officials, Sensory Futures provides a careful and critical analysis of key issues within disability studies that contributes to theory and methodology in Science and Technology Studies (STS), anthropology, and the social sciences more generally. 

In five beautifully-written and thought-provoking chapters, we learn of the complex state-wide program for eradicating deafness in small children through cochlear implants. Seen as a unique opportunity to tackle dis/ability by the Indian state, massive implantation is also a project of ‘normalization’ that often overlooks the complicated sensorial infrastructures that are (re)made in the process, including new formed dependencies on state and corporations. What happens after implantation is even more telling. While children have two years of follow-ups within the implantation program, Friedner unveils the long (and often anxious) process of adjustment to their new sensory existence, as well as the complex and ambiguous roles of parents, caretakers, health professionals and the state in making decisions for children. Along the way we learn how different forms of sensorial knowledge are formed and transmitted, and how some forms of expertise around the senses come to count more than others, limiting and narrowing what counts as communication not only for deaf people but for all of us. 

Undeniably revolutionary as a therapeutic intervention, CIs also bind deaf people and their families in new webs of dependency, expectation, and labor. The technology exists under the skin and is dependent on private corporations on the one hand, and on the often unaccounted for and assumed unlimited labor of families, mainly of mothers on the other hand. In the pursuit of perfect communication, mothers become therapists around the clock. In clinics, schools, and at home, mothers are taught how to interact sensorially with their children to maximize the benefits of CI and correctly teach children how to listen and speak. Mehanat, a specific form of morally charged hard work, is imposed on them as a form of care that will deliver a successful output —hearing and talking— all while curtailing all other forms of affective and sensorial care. Families are placed at a crossroads between caring for children on their own terms, or working for their child’s sensorial improvement on the terms of therapists and speech professionals, which can imply anything from moving to the city, restricting physical contact, speaking only in English to the child, or talking nonstop as therapy. 

Along the way their (and our) worlds are narrowed into thinking that technological solutions (state-sponsored, profit-driven, internationally sourced) are the only path forward. When this technology breaks, or when the infrastructures that support it become unavailable, the sensorial worlds that are so carefully (and often precariously) scaffolded are endangered. Friedner pushes us to ask: whose worlds are we building? And how might we avoid re-building normative, sexists, ableist, capitalist regimes of science and technology?

There are no easy answers to Friedner’s provocative questions. This complex portrait of belonging in a world marked by discrimination and exclusion (not only for deaf children) helps magnify the contradictions inherent to technological solutionism. In asking about implants, she invites us to extend the discussion to many other forms of identity politics in which we continue to ask who can speak with authority for children, their bodies, and the societies into which those bodies will grow. Sensory Futures invites us to face these contradictions with critical ambivalence pushing beyond narrow moral understanding, predetermined binaries, and limiting classifications. Friedner leans into ambivalence (even her own as a CI user) to imagine different kinds of sensorial becomings. The book leaves the reader to trouble through its nuances without forcing its position or over-guiding an agenda. 

The rich and rigorous analysis in Sensory Futures speaks to a long history in STS of disrupting our understanding of bodies, technology, and knowledge. The Society for Social Studies of Science is honored to award Sensory Futures the 2023 Rachel Carson Prize.

The Carson Prize Committee would like to extend an Honorable Mention to Cristina Mejia Visperas for her book Skin Theory: Visual Culture and the Postwar Prison Laboratory (New York University Press 2022). 

At the intersections of media studies, African-American studies, and medical humanities, Skin Theory is a powerful contribution to the field of STS, and to public debate and social change more broadly. Vispera’s research examines the history of dermatological experimentation at Holmesburg prison. In a rich analysis of prison archives, artistic encounters and architectural design, and an in-depth exploration of the making of bioethical standards, this book presents a cautionary tale about the making of scientific knowledge through human experimentation on incarcerated populations. Moreover, it highlights how ubiquitous racist knowledge traditions are as the conditions of possibility for much contemporary scientific and medical knowledge. Imagined as a perfect laboratory, Holmesburg is a reminder of the conflicted history of US medicine and the prison space, which raises awareness for the need to document how science is made, circulated, and implemented —including inside our classrooms. An engaging contribution to abolitionist STS, in Skin Theory black prisoners’ skin becomes a scientific apparatus to be studied and a metaphor for what becomes visible and what is left unseen in the long history of racism in the US, from slavery to mass incarceration. In a broader political register, we are confronted with enduring questions of what is the role of science in the making of freedom. Skin Theory leads the way by proposing forms of insurgent bioethics that work towards the dismantling of the prison apparatus and the violent structures that it continues to uphold. Dr Cristina Mejia Visperas is Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Southern California.

2023 Carson Prize Committee: Maka Suarez (chair), Andrea Ballestero, Marko Monteiro, Kregg Hetherington, and Eugene Richardson

Acceptance Statement:

What an honor to receive the 2024 Rachel Carson Prize! As I often tell people, I did not intend, or even want, to write a book about cochlear implantation in India. My first book was based on research with Indian Sign Language speakers who wanted more Indian Sign Language speakers, and more deaf people, in the world. However, when I returned to India in 2016, I started learning about government programs providing cochlear implants as well as the growing private cochlear implant market and decided that I needed to learn more about both. Popular news articles and social media in India and elsewhere extol the benefits of cochlear implants—often featuring deaf small children being switched on and hearing for the first time and internationally, cochlear implants have been uncritically embraced as the gold standard in intervening on deafness. What’s missing from these narratives is the ways that biotechnology has been changing the contours of deafness, and ultimately what we expect deaf children and people to become and be. How do we allow for and actively promote multiple ways of sensing, engaging, communicating, and relating? How do we interrogate the kinds of sensory hierarchies that exist? So, this is not *only* a book about disability and deafness but it’s also about the kinds of sensory ideologies and values we possess and the active work that people, institutions, and the state do to produce normative sensoriums. What’s missing from public and biomedical discourse is a discussion of the ways that cochlear implants and other biotechnological interventions ultimately constrict sensing, communicating, and relating. A normalizing project is very much a narrowing project. At a time when neuroprosthetics (and hype around them) are emerging, an analysis of cochlear implantation reveals the kinds of complex dependences that can develop among people, device manufacturers, and the state and the importance of approaching such technology with critical ambivalence. Indeed, I am especially excited to receive this award because of Rachel Carson’s insistence on interrogating what is taken for granted as good or productive and exploring harmful consequences across sites and scales. I thank all my research collaborators for engaging in a project of intersensing with me as well as extending my sensory reach in the field. And I also thank the families (especially mothers), children, and the many other stakeholders with whom I conducted research. And a huge thank you to the 4S Rachel Carson Prize Committee for so generously engaging my book. Here is to more accessible and sensorially multiple futures—and with disability in them!


Michele Friedner is an associate professor in the Department of Comparative Human Development at the University of Chicago. Her work sits at the intersection of science and technology studies, medical anthropology, disability studies, and sensory studies. She researches with deaf and disabled people in India as they work towards creating more inhabitable worlds. In addition to Sensory Futures, she is also the author of Valuing Deaf Worlds in Urban India (2015, Rutgers University Press) and numerous journal articles and special issues on disability, deafness, technology, communication, and the senses.