Jones: Reading the Material Approach to Laboratory Life

I’m fascinated by the material approach taken to observe the functions of laboratory work in Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. The observations provided demonstrate how scientists negotiate facts and how the observations gleaned from these negotiations can be applied to any academic discipline. Yet Latour’s and Woolgar’s approach seems particularly useful in environments that interact with material knowledge, environments where information is treated through organizational and conversational processes. I also wonder what the limitations to this type of approach may be? His work provides implications and various potential criticisms, but would employing new devices or processes for constructing facts lead to push back?

Latour and Woolgar state that their approach is interested in “The way in which the daily activities of working scientists lead to the construction of facts” (40). The observations culled and presented had a strangely disorienting impact as they deconstructed scientific method. Scientific method was organized as a culture where the production of knowledge is reproduced as a communicative literary inscription. This is a material approach contemplates the material interactions of objects and devices that can lead to the publishing of papers or the manipulation of statements to assert information as fact. I thought that this section was particularly compelling because knowledge then becomes an abstraction and the manipulated paper is the end goal for exchange (70-75). Yet in an anthropological exploration, the focus and obsession on the production of paper seems to be a process similar to literary creation and yet academic literary creation does seem to wield the same authority or credibility that scientific research wields.

If Latour and Woolgar are trying to “dissolve rather than reaffirm the exoticism with which science is sometimes associated”, they have done so by making those processes of production familiar through drawing parallels, analogies, and historically and socially recreating how facts are “negotiated” into being circulated throughout scientific and non-scientific groups (29). This almost creates the image of science as a compromised form of exchange and research, where fact finding may emerge from efforts as socially burdened as the “cessation of controversy” (184). This leads me to wonder about the limitations of this type of material reading because there is no efficient vacuum to escape from community review, nor would many desire to escape. If we must critically view how scientific facts are constructed then what are the implications for those DHers who are trying to emulate the scientific culture? Not only that, but if scientific research is similar to literary creation, should an exploration into the material productions of literary processes be conducted to scrutinize similar literary procedures?

How can DH take these criticisms to inform their work that if everything is a material construction? Would this require in-house critics or third party reviewers to constantly observe and determine possible areas of privileging certain groups? In trying to find an example through a lab, I noticed that the Northwestern University Digital Humanities Laboratory (NUDHL, “pronounced ‘Noodle’”), appears to be interested in similar critical conversations to those introduced by Laboratory Life. It appears that as an interdisciplinary lab, “discussions, presentations and working sessions” with various departments are facilitated, allowing for critics and assistance with projects or research. In one colloquium, it sought to “help define” situations as “the scope and nature of computational thinking continues to evolve.” I also wonder how many more DH laboratories are interested in establishing a space to think about how technology is changing the way that facts are constructed or research is created?

In any case, Laboratory Life questions assumptions about how the scientific culture is viewed and how previously reified authority should be questioned or reviewed. I found the arguments presented to be compelling and though provoking as they deconstructed how laboratories function and how we perceive facts as “givens”. This creates a wealth of epistemological criticisms, and may even allow for different modes of production or creation that may lead to differing or contested forms of knowledge through various kinds of laboratories, DH or otherwise. This could also lead to greater criticism and push back as previously mentioned, but what would the potential benefits be to new bodies of information?


Latour, Bruno, and Steven Woolgar. 1979. Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

n.d. Northwestern University Digital Humanities Laboratory. Accessed October 4, 2015.


2 thoughts on “Jones: Reading the Material Approach to Laboratory Life

  1. georgie a says:

    Related to your comment about the way that Latour and Woolgar tried to make “processes of [scientific] production familiar through drawing parallels, analogies, and historically and socially recreating how facts are ‘negotiated’ into being circulated throughout scientific and non-scientific groups,” I thought it was helpful in the way that they integrated different types of information structures in “Laboratory Life” – the body text of each chapter is supplemented by journal logs, maps, graphs, diagrams, data tables, and photographs, presenting the audience with a range of critical observations that are likely both familiar and unfamiliar in form, depending on your scholarly background.


    • rjones2155 says:

      I thought his analysis was helpful as well. I was very interested in how they reconstructed the laboratory functions through tables, logs, graphs, and data tables. I also think it was essential for the type of work that they were doing, without outlining those material processes through representational data, it would have made their point more difficult and abstract, especially for a non-scientist like me. By bring in material readings, I felt like they were able to make the idea of social construction more tangible or concrete.


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