Lab

From Order to Disorder

Jan 5, 2016

LABORATORY LIFE
Bruno Latour · Steve Woolgar

5 mins. John enters and goes into his office. He says something very quickly about having made a bad mistake. He had sent the review of a paper. . . . The rest of the sentence is inaudible.
5 mins. 30 secs. Barbara enters. She asks Spencer what kind of solvent to put on the column. Spencer answers from his office. Barbara leaves and goes to the bench.
5mins.35secs. JanecomesinandasksSpencer: “Whenyoupreparefor I.V. with morphine, is it in saline or in water?” Spencer, apparently writing at his desk, answers from his office. Jane leaves.
6 mins. 15 secs. Wilson enters and looks into a number of offices, trying to gather people together for a staff meeting. He receives vague promises. “It’s a question of four thousand bucks which has to be resolved in the next two minutes, at most.” He leaves for the lobby.
6 mins. 20 secs. Bill comes from the chemistry section and gives Spencer a thin vial: “Here are your two hundred micrograms, remember to put this code number on the book,” and he points to the label. He leaves the room.
Long silence. The library is empty. Some write in their offices, some work by windows in the brighly lit bench space. The staccato noise of typewriting can be heard from the lobby.
9 mins. Julius comes in eating an apple and perusing a copy of Nature.
9 mins. 10 secs. Julie comes in from the chemistry section, sits down on the table, unfolds the computer sheets she was carrying, and begins to fill in a sheet of paper. Spencer emerges from his office, looks over her shoulder and says: “hmm, looks nice.” He then disappears into John’s office with a few pages of draft.
9 mins. 20 secs. A secretary comes in from the lobby and places a newly typed draft on John’s desk. She and John briefly exchange remarks about deadlines.
9 mins. 30 secs. Immediately following her, Rose, the inventory assistant, arrives to tell John that a device he wants to buy will cost three hundred dollars. They talk in John’s office and laugh. She leaves.
Silence again.
10 mins. John screams from his office: “Hey Spencer, do you know of any clinical group reporting production of SS in tumour cells?” Spencer yells back from his office: “I read that in the abstracts of the Asilomar conference, it was presented as a well-known fact.” John: “What was the evidence for that?” Spencer: “Well, they got an increase in … and concluded it was due to SS. Maybe, I’m not sure they directly tested biological activities, I’m not sure.” John: “Why don’t you try it on next Monday’s bioassay?”
10 mins. 55 secs. Bill and Mary come in suddenly. They are at the end of a discussion. “I don’t believe this paper,” says Bill. “No, it’s so badly written. You see, it must have been written by an M.D.” They look at Spencer and laugh, . , (excerpt from observer’s notes)
< !Since the turn of the century, scores of men and women have penetrated deep forests, lived in hostile climates, and weathered hostility, boredom, and disease in order to gather the remnants of so- called primitive societies. By contrast to the frequency of these anthropological excursions, relatively few attempts have been made to penetrate the intimacy of life among tribes which are much nearer at hand. This is perhaps surprising in view of the reception and importance attached to their product in modern civilised societies: we refer, of course, to tribes of scientists and to their production of science. Whereas we now have fairly detailed knowledge of the myths and circumcision rituals of exotic tribes, we remain relatively ignorant of the details of equivalent activity among tribes of scientists, whose work is commonly heralded as having startling or, at least, extremely significant effects on our civilisation. It is true, of course, that in recent years a wide variety of scholars have turned their attention to science. Frequently, however, their interest has focused on the large-scale effects of science. There are now a number of studies of the size and general form of overall scientific growth (e.g., Price, 1963; 1975), the economics of its funding (Mansfield, 1968; Korach, 1964), the politics of its support and influence (Gilpin and Wright, 1964; Price, 1954; Blisset, 1972), and the distribution of scientific research throughout the world (Frame et al., 1977). But it is easy to be left with the impression that research with such macroconcerns has enhanced rather than reduced the mystery of science. Although our knowledge of the external effects and reception of science has increased, our understanding of the complex activities which constitute the internal workings of scientific activity remains undeveloped. The emphasis on the external workings of science has been exacerbated by the application of concepts to science which are peculiar to social scientists of differing persuasions and theoretical commitments. Rather than making scientific activity more understandable, social scientists have tended through their use of highly specialised concepts to portray science as a world apart. A 18 LABORATORY LIFE plethora of different specialised approaches have variously been brought to bear on science, such that the resulting overall picture is largely incoherent. Analyses of citations in scientific papers tend to tell us little about the substance of the papers; macroanalyses of science funding remain virtually silent on the nature of intellectual activity; quantitative histories of scientific development have tended to overemphasise those characteristics of science which most readily lend themselves to quantification. In addition, many of these approaches have too often accepted the products of science and taken them for granted in their subsequent analysis, rather than attempting to account for their initial production. Our dissatisfaction with these approaches was considerably worsened by the realisation that very few studies of science have undertaken any kind of self-appraisal of the methods employed. This is surprising in that one might automatically expect students of science to be con- stantly aware of the basis for their pretensions to produce ''scientific" findings: it might be reasonable to expect scholars concerned with the production of science to have begun to examine the basis for their own production of findings. Yet the best works of these scholars remain mute on their own methods and conditions of production. It can, of course, be argued that a lack of reflexivity is inevitable in an area which is still comparatively young, and that excessive attention to methodo- logical issues would detract from the production of badly needed, albeit preliminary, research findings. But, in fact, the little evidence available suggests that new research areas do not usually postpone discussions of methodological issues in favour of the early production of substantive results. Rather, methodological clarification and dis- cussion take place at an early stage of development (Mulkay et al., 1975). Perhaps a more plausible explanation of the lack of methodo- logical reflexivity in social studies of science is simply that such an approach would be inconsistent with the dominance of macroconcerns noted already. Attention to the details of one's own methodology would thus constitute an enterprise radically different from concerns with overall development, or the implications of growth for science policy and funding. Partly as a result of our dissatisfaction, and in an effort both to penetrate the mystique of science and to provide a reflexive under- standing of the detailed activities of working scientists, we decided to construct an account based on the experiences of close daily contact with laboratory scientists over a period oftwo years (see Materials and Methods below).>

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