Ethnographic Studies of Science

Ethnographic studies of science have their origins in the interdisciplinary field of science and technology studies (STS) that emerged out of the Civil Rights Movement, feminism, and environmentalism of the 1960s. STS research illustrates that science and technology are a human achievement, composed of actors, social systems, and social processes. Or, in other words, science and technology are social constructions created in a sociocultural framework with social institutions, actors, and networks, social practices, material culture, and worldviews. STS scholars use ethnographies of science to contextualize science, to study the culture of science, to provide alternative perspectives of science, and to help science and its publics to design new research questions, programs, and policies.

The 1970s saw the entrance of laboratory studies into the STS repertoire for analyzing the ”institutional circumstances of scientific work,” technical content, and the production of scientific knowledge (Knorr-Cetina 1995: 140). In the laboratory, STS scholars studied ”unfinished knowledge” or the process of knowledge creation. These early laboratory studies were done by Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar (1979), Karen Knorr-Cetina (1981), Michael Lynch (1985), and Michael Zenzen and  Sal Restivo  (1982).  They represented diverse methodological approaches from actor network theory to ethnomethodology and constructivism and showed the products of science to be cultural entities. Scientific knowledge was not simply “discovered” but was co created by the scientific practitioners and reconfigured within scientific practice. Ultimately, laboratory studies were able to explain how scientific knowledge production occurred in terms of social factors, and thus began the process of demystifying science.

The primary methodological tool of these early laboratory studies was fieldwork based participant observation, and David Hess (1997: 134) has named them the ”first wave of ethno graphic studies in STS.” This first generation of science ethnographers (mainly Europeans) focused primarily on the social processes that created objective, pure, neutral, descriptive science and the politics within the scientific community. Their work paved the way for the second wave of science ethnographers, who used social constructivism as a given to detail the cultural and political influences shaping knowledge and, thus, allowing the ethnographers and their work to contribute to and intervene in the dialogue of knowledge production (Hess 2001).

Sharon Traweek’s (1988) ethnographic and comparative study of a US high energy physics lab and a Japanese high energy physics lab symbolizes the shift from laboratory studies to a more complete ethnographic description of science that included actors, spaces, artifacts, descriptions of scientific practice, and the ethnographer’s reflections. More recent ethnographies of science (done primarily by American researchers) have followed in this genre while also addressing the roles of science and technology in the everyday/night world of not only scientists but also users, recipients, policy makers,   activists, administrators, educators, and ethnographers. Recent STS ethnographic studies are moving beyond simply situating the ethnographer in the study and are seriously questioning how their theorizing might be applied or intervene in the process (Downey & Dumit 1997).

Medical anthropologist Rayna Rapp (1999) focused on the ”geneticization of lives” through genetic counseling and technology that illustrated how the contemporary US reproductive process is embedded in language, religion, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, age, and education. Her ethnography was structured not by chronology or ecology but by the technology as it moved through lived lives. She documented the ripples of genetic technology and the response and resolution of its passing. This form of ethnography highlighted the social spaces of reproductive technologies and the multiple, diverse, and varied perspectives that need to be considered within the culture of genetic science. These types of ”findings” echo the roots of STS in 1960s social movements and contribute to the discussion and role of researcher and/or activist.

Another ethnographer of science, Joe Dumit (2004), focused on the virtual community of PET scans in US culture to create an ”ethnography of images.” He ”followed” the images from their inception in experimental design to ”everyday notions of personhood.” Dumit’s work is a thick description of the images evolving in a crisscrossed space inhabited by actors from  popular,   forensic,  activist,  and neuroscience culture. It is a culture/artifact in creation, still being defined, that maps out gaps in expertise, knowledge, and consequences. Ethnographies of science are more than a description of a culture. They are an active contribution to the culture that the informants read, use, critique, and participate in. Laboratory studies and ethnographies of science have matured quickly into a dynamic tool that ethnographers are using to document culture and formulate applicable theory.


  1. Allen, B. (2003)  Uneasy Alchemy:  Citizens and Experts in Louisiana’s Chemical Corridor Disputes. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.
  2. Collin, H. & Pinch, T. (1982) Frames of Meaning. Routledge, London.
  3. Downey, G. & Dumit, J. (Eds.) (1997) Cyborgs and Citadels. School of American Research, Sante Fe, NM.
  4. Dumit, J. (2004) Picturing Personhood: Brain Scans and Biomedical Identity. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
  5. Hess, D. (1997) Science Studies: An Advanced Introduction. New York University Press, New York.
  6. Hess, D. (2001) Ethnography and the Development of Science and Technology Studies. In: Atkinson, P., Coffey, A., Delamont, S., Lofland, L., & Lofland, J. (Eds.), Sage Handbook of Ethnography. Sage, London, pp. 234-345.
  7. Knorr-Cetina, K. (1981) The Manufacture of Knowledge: An Essay on the Constructivist and Contextual Nature of Science. Pergamon, Oxford.
  8. Knorr-Cetina, K. (1995) Laboratory Studies: The Cultural Approach to the Study of Science. In: Jasanoff, S., Markle, G. E., Petersen, J. C., & Pinch, T. (Eds.), Handbook of Science and Technology Studies. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA, pp. 140-66.
  9. Latour, B. & Woolgar, S. (1979) Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts. Sage, Beverly Hills, CA.
  10. Lynch, M. (1985) Art and Artifact in Laboratory Science: A Study of Shop Work and Shop Talk in a Research Laboratory. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.
  11. Rapp, R. (1999) Testing Women, Testing the Fetus: The Social Impact of Amniocentesis in America. Routledge, New York.
  12. Traweek, S. (1988) Beamtimes and Lifetimes: The World of High Energy Physicists. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
  13. Zenzen, M. & Restivo, S. (1982) The Mysterious Morphology of Immiscible Liquids: A Study of Scientific Practice. Social Science Information 21(3): 447-73.

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