“When you start working on a topic, you feel like swimming in an ocean, and without a boat“ – An interview with Gülşah Başkavak

15 May 2020

Gülşah Başkavak, research associate in the research field “Human, Medicine, and Society” at the Orient-Institut Istanbul, started working at the institute in February 20. In her research project, she investigates socio-cultural practices of e-health and self-tracking technologies in Turkey.

In the following interview, which was first published on 22 October 2019 by Max Weber Foundation (https://trafo.hypotheses.org/19828), she talks about her previous and ongoing research.

Gülşah Başkavak is a sociologist, specializing in sociology of medicine and sociology of work. She received her PhD in Sociology from the Middle East Technical University (METU) in Ankara, with a dissertation entitled “Understanding Surgical Craft in the Changing Context of Technology, Transformation of Healthcare and Marketization: A Case Study on Surgeons in Istanbul, Turkey”. Her academic interests focus mainly on the relationship between medicine and technology, technological transformation and work, Science and Technology Studies (STS), crafts and craftsmanship, occupations and professions.

  1. How do you explain your current research projects to your students?

My current research interests focus on digitalization in the field of health and illness. Since my start at the Orient-Institut I have conducted a qualitative study on the practices of self-tracking devices in Turkey from a socio-cultural perspective. The focus was particularly on how individuals are monitoring their health through self-tracking technologies. In addition, the extent of empowerment these devices provide as well as the barriers individuals encounter in accessing and using such technologies is crucial. Turkey, with its heterogeneous population, provides a significant case for studying the opportunities for access to medical technologies and digital devices or the frequency and other characteristics of related practices. As our investigation is part of a broader research project on eHealth in Germany (project leader and cooperation partner: Prof. Dr. Stefan Selke, Furtwangen University), our findings are significant for understanding similarities and differences in Turkish and German eHealth practices. This is a pioneering study for Turkey in the sense that there is almost no other sociological research on the topic.

One of the major questions of the study is, for instance: Which groups are more involved than others in using self-tracking technologies providing digital health data? An investigation of the social and cultural aspects of digital health may provide significant contributions to the fields of both STS and Sociology of Medicine. The study is also valuable as it may provide the basis for a longitudinal study in Turkey. In short, I consider it significant to observe and research the practices and impacts of digitalization in medicine and health. As a social scientist, examining the interaction of medicine and technology is a topic that I am very happy to be involved in.

  1. What were academic or personal inspirations that led to your current research?

I have a background in economics and labor economics in particular. The concepts of work and labor have always been a point of focus for me at two, i.e. the macro and micro levels. Then technology has been added to these. Starting with my master’s thesis, I became curious about the work-technology relationship, questioning the effects of technology on the labor process and organizations. How are professions evolving in response to the advancement of information and communication technologies? What are the changes in the concept of skill in this process of transformation (upgrade or deskilling) and how is the manual-mental labor distinction affected? What about the craft dimension in many forms of work, is that being dissolved or maintained? I continued my interest in the topic further in my PhD. Also inspired by the lively atmosphere at Middle East Technical University, I was happy to combine my interest in technology and professions with the sociology of health and medicine. My dissertation was an investigation of surgical work, inquiring the interaction of the craftsmanship aspect of surgery with the changes in medical technologies. With regard to its conceptual focus and case selection, I can say that it is a pioneering study. In the dissertation, I studied the changes in the craft aspect of surgical work in reaction to the changes in the three spheres of medical technology, healthcare system, and market dynamics. A combined background in both economics and sociology allowed me to problematize macro and micro dynamics simultaneously within a single research framework. I am deeply attracted to direct my attention on the social impact of technological change towards medicine and professions related to it. This is a constant inspiration for my further research.

  1. How are you ‘doing’ research? What are your most important research methods (interviews, archives, excavations…?)

I use qualitative methods and feel personally inclined to this type of methodology. I think that an ethnographic approach and techniques such as in-depth interviews and participant observations are useful in both allowing “understanding” or “interpreting” most research questions as well as providing more freedom to the researcher. I admire C. W. Mills’ concept of “social imagination” and recognize the importance of experience in reading between the lines in the responses given to in-depth interviews and realizing the fuzzy background. It also requires a certain level of empathy, without hampering, of course, personal caution and objectivity. I should also add that, as part of the current project, I started to follow social media outlets created or followed by patients with chronic diseases, especially those related to the use of self-tracking technologies. This is a new and exciting venue of research for me.

  1. Which publications or academic events (workshops, conferences, lecture series…) did inspire you recently?

Currently working on digitalization in health and medicine, I am particularly inspired by the works of Deborah Lupton. When you start working on a topic that you are familiar with but not completely informed, you feel like swimming in an ocean, and without a boat. But in time, that huge body of water starts to narrow down, becoming more like a lake. And now you have a boat, also a compass … and you start feeling more confident and competent. This is how I feel when I start a new research.

Sociology of Medicine is a newly developing subfield in Turkey, and there are some really exciting works, particularly on experiences of illness and the encounter of individuals with new medical technologies. While still relatively few in quantity, this is a literature I am closely following. Also, with a group of colleagues I have been involved in the preparation of a special issue as a contribution to this literature. We had organized a special session on e-health at the STS TURKEY conference held on 10-12 September 2019 in Istanbul. At the Orient-Institut Istanbul, and in the “Human, Medicine and Society” research area in particular, we are working in an extremely inspiring and supporting academic environment.

  1. Do you think that academic mobility changes the way in which research projects are conceptualized? What are your personal experiences in this regard?

During my PhD, I attended Berlin’s Humboldt University for an academic year, which was a very valuable experience for me, enriching me in various ways. Working at the Orient-Institut Istanbul as a local employee, while living in my home country, I am involved in a completely international academic environment. I consider this a great opportunity, an extremely fruitful and enriching experience. There is continuous activity at our institute, putting me in contact with scholars from a variety of perspectives, research agendas and cultural backgrounds; and I benefit greatly from learning about different conceptual and theoretical approaches in formulating research projects and different methodologies used. In an international environment like this, sharing your own research leads to new openings as you are faced with questions and comments from very different angles, adding much to your thinking. Colloquia are especially beneficial in this regard as they provide a platform for discussing different approaches and modifying our own. Even small talks during coffee breaks may inspire new topics for an article or project. I can already list three new research ideas, all developed in these coffee breaks. I consider myself really lucky to be part of this lively atmosphere at the Orient-Institut Istanbul.

Keywords

Turkey, research project, 21st century, self-tracking technologies, e-health, Sociology of Medicine, OII-Human, Medicine, and Society