Materiality and Scientific Practice

Studies of scientific practice were the first to investigate scientific practice and science in the making empirically, something that had not been done by philosophers and historians of science. The outcomes of these studies opposed the standard view of science and instead showed how science and scientific knowledge are produced locally and scientists, instruments, computers, and other heterogeneous elements have to work together in order to co construct science. They have stressed the importance of materiality in scientific practice and provided material for debate between different ways of studying materiality.

Science had long been considered as an activity that provides us with information about the world ”out there.” In other words, science tells us about how the world really is and delivers true explanations of inquiry independent phenomena. In the 1960s the view of science as a rational and universal process that provides us with the ”truth” began to change. Kuhn (1996) argued that ”facts” were the outcomes of negotiations between scientists. These negotiations took place within a ”paradigm” in which agreement existed about the methods that should be followed and the kinds of knowledge that were scientific. Innovative knowledge that would not fit in the contemporary paradigm could only be accepted if scientists were persuasive enough to convince others of their findings. Partly building on the work of Kuhn, some sociologists (but also, for example, anthropologists and historians) started to regard science as deeply embedded in society. This allowed them to investigate science as a social process.

Examples of studies of scientific practice are ”laboratory studies.” These occurred in the late 1970s. By inserting themselves into a laboratory, scholars of sociology (and others) participated and observed the practices inside laboratories -the place where scientific knowledge is produced. By writing ethnographies of science, they showed that knowledge construction is not a purely rational process. Instead, scientific practice can be rather ”messy.” Knowledge production is a process in which nonsolid and uncertain ingredients, day to day, and contingent factors play a role. An experiment is carried out at a particular time in a particular setting. It is per formed by people who have certain interests and ideas about which parameters and materials are important and which are not. What experiments and how experiments are carried out thus depend on these aspects in addition to issues like the availability and costs of particular equipment. This also means that the outcome of these experiments, science, is not universal from the start. Latour (1988) illustrates this by analyzing the ”fact” that microbes can cause disease.

Louis Pasteur was able to isolate microbes and show visible colonies of them in his laboratory, something that would have been impossible outside a laboratory. With the help of the instruments in the laboratory he was able to define what he regarded as a microbe and what was not. By giving public demonstrations he tried to convince others that microbes indeed cause disease. The public demonstrations were, in a sense, extended laboratories, since the same conditions as in the laboratory had to apply in order to obtain the same results. It was only when Pasteur convinced other scientists, doctors, and other groups that the existence of the microbe and it being the cause of disease became taken for granted and a “fact.” Apart from illustrating that scientific outcomes are made into universal facts through hard work, this example has also shown that science can be regarded as a process of construction rather than description. In this process of construction, materiality plays an important role.

This is illustrated by Zeiss (2004). When the quality of our drinking water is tested, it is not the water ”out there” that is brought into the laboratory to be tested. The water that is taken ”out there” is put into sample bottles of various materials and with various preservatives to pre vent the specific parameters for which the water has to be tested from changing. A bottle for a bacteriological sample contains a preservative that neutralizes the chlorine in the water. If this preservative were absent, the chlorine would decrease or extinguish the bacteria population and the bacteria population could no longer be analyzed when the sample arrived at the laboratory. In this process, however, other parameters – for which this specific sample will not be tested – will change or be eliminated. The water that was taken from a tap has thus in a certain sense been purified in order to be suitable for testing in a laboratory. The laboratory therefore does not study the water as it is ”out there,” just as other laboratories do not study nature as it is ”out there.”

The knowledge that science produces, whether this is inside or outside laboratories, is always mediated by perceptions and instruments. Scientists, instruments, and natural objects have to adjust to each other and take each other into account for scientific knowledge to be produced. In other words, they are all reconfigured in a specific practice to produce knowledge (e.g., water quality) together. The process of knowledge production is constitutive for what we know reality to be; scientists can therefore be said to construct rather than describe nature. This has (theoretical) consequences: it means that we cannot know nature as it is. However, this is not to say that scientific knowledge would therefore be less valuable. The specific knowledge about water quality that can be obtained through detailed analyses with technological instruments cannot be obtained in a different way. Scientists, the water, the sample bottles, and the measurement instruments together make knowledge production possible; they co construct scientific knowledge.

Laboratory studies have been celebrated for being the first to explore scientific practice as it is and in real time. They did not focus on the context of scientific practice, but investigated how the content of scientific knowledge is produced. Constructivism and the widespread use of ethnographic studies in social studies of science and technology are important outcomes of laboratory studies. The stress on materiality in the production of scientific knowledge is another important result. How materiality can or should be analyzed theoretically has however been subject to debate. An example can clarify this.

It happens that experiments do not work, the scientist does not succeed in getting the material to work, the material does not do what it is supposed to do: the material resists. This has frequently been described in laboratory studies. Some would argue that it is not possible to grant material artifacts agency, since this would imply an essentialist – or technological determinist – assumption of a technological or material core in which the intrinsic properties of the material can be found. They do not deny that material (artifacts) can have constraining influences upon actors, but they contend that these constraints can be known as such: they are always subject to interpretation. In their eyes, materiality (and scientific practices) can only be studied through looking at accounts of these constraints and through exploring why some accounts are more convincing than others (for this approach to materiality, see Grint & Woolgar 1997). Scientists study purified and selected parts of nature or representations of nature in the form of diagrams, images, and graphs. Ethnographers entering the laboratory are not able to distinguish the same characteristics of, or patterns in, the material as the scientists distinguish. Scientists have learned to read the material in specific ways – they distinguish between what is relevant to see and what is irrelevant. They cannot deal with materiality as it is and neither can social scientists. According to Grint and Woolgar (1997), material resistances have to be interpreted and once they have been interpreted, the social world has been entered in which one’s disciplinary background and the thoughts of previous scientists become important.

Others have argued that reducing materiality to accounts does not do justice to the role of materiality. They see work in laboratories as a process of active interaction with materiality. Actor network theory (ANT) does not want to make a distinction between the technical and the social, since what counts as human and non human is in itself a construction. ANT studies often follow an actor (or actant) in a network of social and technical elements with which the actor can make alliances and which are constitutive of science (e.g., Louis Pasteur, above). The mangle of practice approach (Pickering 1995) proposes to take material agency seriously in a different way. Pickering argues that the contours of material agency are never decisively known in advance. Instead, scientists have a continuous job to try “tuning” into the material agency. Material agency can then be temporally emergent in practice. Whereas ANT sees humans and non humans as sym metric and interchangeable, Pickering argues that humans cannot be substituted for machines, especially since humans have intentions, goals, and plans that have to be taken into account. These intentions and possible futures are inter twined with existing ideas and scientific results and can also be changed by tuning. The process of tuning refers to a way of dealing with the resistance of the material by accommodating it and revising the goals, intentions, and/or material form of the machine. Terms similar to “tuning” are “tinkering” (Knorr-Cetina 1981) and “bricolage” (Latour & Woolgar 1986), but these have less (explicit) connotations to theoretical ways of dealing with the issue of materiality.


  1. Grint, K. & Woolgar, S. (1997) The Machine at Work: Technology, Work and Organization. Polity Press, Cambridge.
  2. Knorr-Cetina, K. (1981) The Manufacture of Knowledge: An Essay in the Constructivist and Contextual Nature of Science. Pergamon, Oxford.
  3. 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.
  4. Kuhn, T. S. (1996 [1962]) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  5. Latour, B. (1988) The Pasteurization of France. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
  6. Latour, B. & Woolgar, S. (1986) Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
  7. Pickering, A. (1995) The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  8. Zeiss, R. (2004) Standardizing Materiality: Tracking Co-Constructed Relationships between Quality Standards and Materiality in the English Water Industry. Dissertation, University of York.

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