The craft of intensive care medicine


Address for correspondence: Simon Carmel, School of Health and Human Sciences, University of Essex, Wivenhoe Park, Colchester, Essex, CO4 3SQ


The practice of medicine is often represented as a dualism: is medicine a ‘science’ or an ‘art’? This dualism has been long-lasting, with evident appeal for the medical profession. It also appears to have been rhetorically powerful, for example in enabling clinicians to resist the encroachment of ‘scientific’ evidence-based medicine into core areas of medical work such as individual clinical judgement. In this article I want to make the case for a more valid conceptualisation of medical practice: that it is a ‘craft’ activity. The case I make is founded on a theoretical synthesis of the concept of craft, combined with an analysis of ethnographic observations of routine medical practice in intensive care. For this context the craft aspects of medical work can be seen in how biomedical and other types of knowledge are used in practice, the embodied skills and practical judgement of practitioners and the technological and material environment. These aspects are brought together in two conceptual dimensions for ‘craft’: first, the application of knowledge; second, interaction with the material world. Some practical and political implications of a ‘craft’ metaphor for medical practice are noted.