Laboratory Studies

The most prominent laboratory studies – produced in the late 1970s and early 1980s -continued a trend in the sociology of science and technology away from attention to the institutional character of science and toward a sociological understanding of the process of knowledge production itself and the ”technical core” of science. To comprehend the process through which knowledge is constructed, these studies undertook ethnographic investigations of the work that goes on in scientific laboratories. Among the central findings of this body of scholarship are: (1) contrary to standard images of science, which suggest that the methods, practices, and outcomes of science are universal (or trans contextual), knowledge production occurs at a local level and is subject to local variation; (2) instead of the characterization of science as fundamentally logical and rational, science is the product of contingent factors; (3) scientific work does not merely read its results from nature, but instead nature is transformed in the laboratory; (4) if the view of science as ”reading off nature” amounts to an understanding of science as a descriptive practice, the early laboratory studies show, by contrast, that scientific results are the product of construction.

Initially published in 1979, Latour and Wool gar’s Laboratory Life (1986) is probably the most prominent laboratory study. This book traces the struggle to define the structure of an important human hormone. The authors show that the scientists they study are centrally engaged in efforts to persuade colleagues of the validity of their findings. To do this, these researchers begin with ”inscription devices” – pieces of equipment that transform a material substance into a figure or a diagram. Unlike standard images of science as linear processes that lead inevitably to ”findings,” the movement from experimental work to inscription, as witnessed by Latour, was instead messy and uneven. In the end, however, the process was forgotten or taken for granted and scientific discussion focused on figures and diagrams. As a result, scientists came to see their inscriptions as direct indicators of the substance being studied, rather than as contingent and constructed outcomes.

With an inscription, scientists work to persuade colleagues to drop qualifications in any statements they make about the inscription. The researchers aim to move their competitors from statements like ”Smith’s work appears to suggest that x plays a crucial role in the onset of lung cancer” to ”x plays a crucial role in the onset of lung cancer.” This is all part of the process of knowledge construction. A fact only exists when qualification is gone and it is taken for granted and is drawn on as part of an accepted body of knowledge.

Another canonical laboratory study is Knorr-Cetina’s The Manufacture of Knowledge (1981), which studied the work of plant protein researchers. Knorr-Cetina stresses the contingent and local character of knowledge production, showing that how an experiment proceeds depends as much on what equipment happens to be available, what money has been allocated for, and how resource use needs to be justified as on widely accepted procedures. In addition, Knorr-Cetina suggests that scientists are not linear reasoners, but reason analogically. Knorr-Cetina shows that the messy and contingent process of knowledge production is masked by scientific papers which suggest an orderly and linear movement from introduction, to methods, to data and analysis and conclusions.

Another especially prominent laboratory study is Lynch’s Art and Artifact in Laboratory Science (1985). Coming from the ethnomethodological tradition and drawing on data collected in a university brain sciences laboratory, this book, like Knorr-Cetina’s work, points to the disjunction between scientific writing and what actually happens in the laboratory. Even more than Knorr-Cetina, Lynch stresses the local character of scientific work, suggesting that, for example, what counts as an artifact in experimental work is determined in the local laboratory context through discussion of the local situation and not measured against an external standard. Lynch focuses on talk among laboratory workers and shows that standards for matters like experimental competence are settled for practical purposes.

A final canonical text, Traweek’s Beamtimes and Lifetimes (1988), offers a quite different perspective. Based on a comparative analysis of high energy physics research in the US and Japan, Traweek focuses more on the culture of laboratory practice than on the epistemological concerns that drive the other prominent laboratory studies. Looking especially at the large and expensive equipment at the center of high energy physics, Traweek shows how the different cultures of the two countries affect the construction and use of these crucial tools. Most prominently, Traweek describes how equipment is proposed by researchers in the Japanese case and then built outside the laboratory environment and not subject to subsequent modification. In the US, particle detectors, while initially developed based on scientific specifications, are also altered on the basis of everyday use. This difference in orientation to equipment construction affects the way in which research is undertaken and the outcomes produced.

Broadly speaking, the classic laboratory ethnographies treat the laboratories studied in isolation from a larger social world in which we might view them as embedded. Kleinman (2003) moves laboratory ethnography in a new direction. Situating the plant pathology laboratory he studies within a broader political economy, Kleinman shows the multiple subtle and indirect ways in which university laboratory practices can be affected by the world of commerce.


  1. Hess, D. J. (1992) Introduction: The New Ethnography and the Anthropology of Science and Technology. Knowledge and Society 9: 1-26.
  2. Hess, D. J. (1997) Science Studies: An Advanced Introduction. New York University Press, New York.
  3. Kleinman, D. L. (2003) Impure Cultures: University Biology and the Commercial World. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison.
  4. Knorr-Cetina, K. (1981) The Manufacture of Knowledge: An Essay in the Constructivist and Contextual Nature of Science. Pergamon, Oxford.
  5. 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.
  6. Knorr-Cetina, K. (1999) Epistemic Cultures: How the Sciences Make Knowledge. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
  7. Latour, B. & Woolgar, S. (1986) Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
  8. Lynch, M. (1985) Art and Artifact in Laboratory Science: A Study of Shop Work and Shop Talk in a Research Laboratory. Routledge, London.
  9. Traweek, S. (1988) Beamtimes and Lifetimes: The World of High Energy Physics. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

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