The New Cheerful Robots: Workers of the Medical Knowledge Bureaucracy

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Rebecca Overmyer-Velázquez


The growing literature of pharmaceutical studies shows a unanimous disapproval towards the corporate mechanisms of the pharmaceutical industry. Prominent scholar, Sergio Sismondo, goes as far as to criticize it through nightmarish allegories on the grounds of being a hegemonic, “ghostly” regime responsible for, often deadly, health crises. In particular, the process of medical knowledge production was identified as a major source of power, underpinning the financial interests of the industry at the expense of public health. To market new drugs, pharmaceutical companies produce and disseminate their own scientific research through an elaborate network of contracted firms and in-house departments, in short, through a medical knowledge bureaucracy. While it is partly responsible for industry connected public health crises, scholars repeatedly failed to examine the circumstances of the individuals who work within, and function as the driving force of this powerful system. The present research tires to answer the question of how much responsibility do the workers of the medical knowledge bureaucracy have over the social consequences of the organization they are part of? Consequently, this is a study of those white-collar workers and managers who diligently keep the medical knowledge bureaucracy, and thus Big Pharma functioning on a day-to-day basis. Attending a major industry workshop and conducting seven in-depth interviews with long-time industry insiders the research aims to reflect on the conditions of modern work in the pharmaceutical industry. The study follows the thought of American sociologist, C. Wright Mills who wrote extensively of the professional middle-classes in the 1950’s. Using an insightful metaphor, Mills asserts that white-collar workers became “Cheerful Robots,” who no longer exert their individual reason but dissipate in the rational bureaucracy of the corporation in gleeful obliviousness. Although, almost 70 years passed since Mills’ dystopian analysis, the conducted interviews reveal bone-chilling similarities. The findings presented show, the medical knowledge bureaucracy is a rationalized system whose agents lack comprehensive social responsibility and self-rationalize themselves resembling Mills’ Cheerful Robot. If anything, only the vital discussion is absent from contemporary academic discourse on this long-standing topic. It seems, after all, “ghostly” is an appropriate descriptor for the medical knowledge bureaucracy, and those within it.


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