Abnormal Appearances: Inspection, Display and the Clinic


  • Katie Featherstone School of Healthcare Sciences Cardiff University, UK
  • Paul Atkinson School of Social Sciences Cardiff University, UK


Diagnosis , Classification , Genetic Syndrome, Genetic Testing, Children , Ethnography


We provide an examination of the field of dysmorphology, a clinical speciality that in its current form combines a long history of inspection and display with the identification and representation of associated underlying molecular changes. The recognition and description of abnormal appearances is thus increasingly accompanied by genetic and other molecular investigations. Our analysis draws on our long-term ethnographic engagement with a UK clinical genetics service and the work of two clinical genetics teams within a regional teaching hospital. We document the intersection of genetic science with clinical work to suggest that while molecular testing often identifies the genetic basis for unusual appearances and abnormal development, it does not fully supplant clinical apperception and interpretation. The two modes of knowledge – the clinical and the biomedical – co-exist in the work and the discourse of dysmorphology practice. The contemporary dysmorphology clinic thus encapsulates the epistemological systems of modern medicine, grounded in the clinical gaze and on the classificatory systems of classic nosology. Within such a system of clinical knowledge, the ‘monstrous’ does not escape the boundaries of knowledge. Monstrous appearances are accommodated and domesticated within the classificatory systems of normal medicine.