Touch and the Fluctuation of Agency and Motor Control in Pediatric Dentistry
This study investigates a variety of ways in which dental clinicians and adult guardians touch child patients to get them to participate in dental procedures in China’s mainland. Children at the dentist’s office often experience pain and show fear, and dental care practitioners as well as adult guardians (in our case, parents and grandparents) perform tactile and haptic actions of comfort and control in response. Our analysis shows the dual roles that the children’s bodies play when touching and being touched in the dentist’s office: At times, they are agents or animators in control of their own movements; at other times, they are objects of manipulation by others. Moreover, sometimes their movements are collaboratively controlled by multiple participants, including the patient him/herself. During intercorporeal engagements in Chinese pediatric dentistry, as in many other contexts of interpersonal touch, the center of control and the source of animation of movements and actions are often distributed among multiple bodies. What is more, tactile and haptic actions in this context shift back and forth between direct forms, where the act of one body causes a change in the other, and actions that can be properly called semiotic or communicative in Grice’s (1968) sense, which aim to make the other person recognize the actor’s intent and act on it of his or her own volition.
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