Bruno Latour’s strange take on laboratory life

August 23, 2010

A while back I picked up a book by sociologists of science Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar called Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts. It’s an anthropological account of the ordinary goings-on of a scientific laboratory.

Latour spent 21 months, from October 1975 to August 1977, gathering field data in the lab of Nobel Prize-winner Robert Guillemin at the Salk Institute. He observed lab members at work, sat in on meetings, etc.

I liked the authors’ description of their approach:

[O]ur use of “anthropology” denotes the importance of bracketing our familiarity with the object of our study. By this we mean that we regard it as instructive to apprehend as strange those aspects of scientific activity which are readily taken for granted. … This … leads us to what might be regarded as a particularly irreverent approach to the analysis of science. (29)

More specifically:

What are these people doing? What are they talking about? … What part is played by the animals who squeak incessantly in ante-rooms? … Perhaps these animals are being processed for eating. Maybe we are witnessing oracular prophecy through the inspection of rats’ entrails. … Are the heated debates in front of the blackboard part of some gambling contest? (43-44)

Also amusing is this diagram of the lab:

I quit the book a few pages later. I’ve worked in a biology lab. It’s not news to me what goes on in one.

I still like the idea, though, of regarding as strange what others take for granted. Digging ourselves out of the climate change mess would seem to require that we start thinking of the status quo as a strange state of affairs indeed.

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