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Laboratory Life

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Bruno Latour and Steven WoolgarEdit

Latour (b. 1947) is a French sociologist and anthropolgist, particular in the field of science studies. His thought has heavily influenced the fied of STS (Science, Technology, Society) Studies, and he has been one of the developers of the powerfully influential concept actor-network theory (ANT). His influence can be found in writers such as Mol, Law, Parikka, Haraway and others. He taught at the École des Mines de Paris from `982-2006, and now hold position as Professor and vice-president of research at the Institut d'études politiques de Paris.

While his early work (such as Laboratory Life) has been associated with social constructionist stances, his later diverge to a more symbiotic understanding between science and the social. Latour is considered to be one of the most-cited intellectuals in the humanities/social sciences.

Woolgar is a British sociologist and Chair of Sociology and Marketing and is Professor of Marketing at the University of Oxford, as well as Director of Science and Technology Studies within Oxford's Institute for Science, Innovation and Society. His work is associated with the fields of science studies, STS, and SSK (sociology of scientific knowledge).

Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Fact [1979]Edit

Latour and Woolgar's book is an effort to re-approach the problem and practice of an sociology of science. Latour and Woolgar chase two questions: How are facts constructed in a laboratory and how can a sociologist account for this construction? And what, if any, are the differences between constructions of facts and constructions of accounts? Part of the issue with studying scientists as a culture (through the participant/observer scenario) is the distinction made between the social and the technical, a distinction made by scientists themselves as a way to conceptually divorce their social actions from their scientific findings. This division is a "resource" drawn upon in scientific practice, and Woolgar and Latour's goals is to "understand how this distiniction features in the activities of scientists, rather than to demonstrate that emphasis on one or the other side of the duality is more appropriate for our understanding of science" (27). Thus, they will not try to analyze social and technical as distinct yet linked entities--to do so overlooks the importance of the distiniction in science itself. Similarly, Latour and Woolgar suggest that technical terminology is a phenomenon to be explained--their language, as part of their "technical" work, should not be taken for granted. Their analysis concerns "the social construction of scientific facts" (32).

In some senses, their primary interest may be describes as a study of how "scientific order is constructed out of chaos" and this is also a self-reflextive method (33). In short, this means that all utterances have multiple possible meanings. Knowledge of what is "truly" being said is hopeless, yet for "practical purposes" order will be inflicted upon the utterances--methods and procedures are use to deny alternative readings and descriptions and therefore "produce ordered versions of the utterances and observations which they have accumulated" 36). Latour and Woolgar are interested in how they themselves produce order against the range of problematic alternative interpretations, and will reflexively attend to their own meaning making. Likewise, for scientists, "a body of practices widely regarded by outsiders as well organized, logical, and coherent, in fact consists of a disordered array of observations with which scientists struggle to produce order [...] actual scientific practice entails the confrontation andnegotiation of utter confusion. The solution adopted by scientists is the imposition of various frameworks by which the extent of backgroun noise can be reduced and against which an apparently coherent signal can be presented. The process whereby such frameworks are constructed and imposed is the subject of our study" (36-7). This emphasis, ergo, involves an investigation of the organization of observations and experiences. Certainly the most significant nugget to carry away from this text is explain in Chapter XX, in which they discuss the social constitution of "facts". For the authors, it is not reality that produces facts (facts do not have some one-to-one essential correspondance to reality, they are not "exposed" in their rawness through measurement and examination) but facts that constitute reality, and facts themselves are concretized through elaborate processes of social navigation.

Latour and Woolgar understand their efforts as an "anthropology of science" in which they produce empirical material via ethnography in a specific setting (rather than reports, testimonies or interviews). Setting is important because scientists "often change the manner and content of their statements when talking to outsiders" which creates observational problems (and difficulties appreciating science). Also of observation is the alchemical transition from realities of scientific practice to the production of statements of scientific fact. In terms of their observer method, the refuse to "go native" (or bow before the sorcerer) as a way of easing their access to information, for "scientists in our laboratory constitute a tribe whose daily manipulation and production of objects is in danger of being misunderstood, if accorded the high status with which its outputs are somethings greeted by the outside world" (29). By making the laboratory seems as strange as possible, Latour and Woolgar endeavor to take nothing for granted.

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